Young defenders could mitigate star departures for Gators in 2016

By Adam Silverstein
April 11, 2016
Young defenders could mitigate star departures for Gators in 2016

Image Credit: UAA

In just a few weeks, nearly two handfuls of former Florida Gators will be selected in the 2016 NFL Draft and signed as undrafted free agents by professional teams. It will be a stark reminder how much talent left Florida this past season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, linebacker Antonio Morrison and safety Keanu Neal were not just great players, they were leaders for the Gators, guys that played key roles in Florida transitioning from Will Muschamp to head coach Jim McElwain.

Some of the names slotted to step up in the place of these four players are well known already: redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, junior CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, senior S Marcus Maye, redshirt senior LB Jarrad Davis and senior LB Alex Anzalone.

But as many saw last Friday during the 2016 Orange & Blue Debut, some names that McElwain and the coaching staff had praised throughout the spring look to be stepping up to the hype.

Junior CB Duke Dawson and redshirt junior S Marcell Harris are not exactly “young,” but neither has been a full-time starter for Florida. Dawson saw action on the Blue team, hauling in two interceptions of freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, one he returned 30 yards for a touchdown. Harris only registered a tackle in limited snaps, but he certainly appears ready to step in for Neal when the time comes.

“Every day, I just am really impressed with how [Dawson] is excelling both at corner and at nickel. He’s a guy that obviously is going to play a ton,” explained McElwain after the game. “I think Marcell Harris really had a good spring as well at safety. That secondary as a whole, that’s a good group of guys.”

Davis saw limited action Friday and Anzalone missed the game. Though Anzalone was active during spring practice, he remained non-contact during the 15 meetings as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury that cost him much of the 2015 season.

Though guys like senior Daniel McMillian and redshirt junior Matt Rolin should see an increase in snaps this season, McElwain has been especially impressed with freshman early enrollee David Reese, who had four tackles (one for lost yardage) on Friday. Florida’s linebacking depth remains an issue, but guys like Reese stepping up are key to ensuring the defense does not not take a step back.

“David Reese, for example, just got a ton of reps and really got better himself. Jarrad is as good a player as there is in the country, if not the best linebacker in the country. That guy proved it. I think with Alex being out really gave us an opportunity to give guys some valuable looks,” McElwain said of the unit. “They’ve gotten better. We’re adding a couple that will be in in August. It’s one of those positions where we need to continue to add depth.”

Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson, a Texas athlete who moved from safety to linebacker and is up to 228 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, is another player who will mitigate the Gators’ depth issues in the middle of the defense. Johnson is especially impressive because of his athleticism; even as he continues to learn the position, his innate ability is keeping him on the field, particularly when UF needs a coverage backer.

“I thought he made some really good plays on the ball and came up with some good tackles in the hole,” said McElwain of Johnson, who also intercepted Franks. “You see the size and speed there, and his ability to carry a couple seams with his secondary [experience] I think is really going to help us against a lot of spread teams. To have him back in there, I thought he did a heck of a job.”

Florida’s tremendous defensive performances continued from Urban Meyer to Muschamp and now to McElwain and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, but with so many big stars gone, it will be interesting to see whether the Gators can maintain their standing as one of the most feared defenses in the nation.


  1. craftsmantools says:

    It appears that UF will again have a very good defense. But UF’s defense is not nearly as good as the writer proclaims. UF was gashed by the best running backs they faced, Jalen Hurd, Leonard Fournette, Derick Henry,and Dalvin Cook. The self proclaimed ‘DBU’ was the only team that made Brandon Harris look like a great quarterback. Michigan did whatever they wanted to do, and UF’s defense looked helpless, and Michigan was not a great offensive team.
    UF had a “feared” defense in 2012. It was truly great and carried a poor UF offense to eleven wins and a final top ten ranking. UF’s defense, despite the hype, has not been great in the other years since Tebow left. Statistics are for losers, and UF’s defense has nearly always faltered when it mattered.
    Yes, UF’s defense looks like it will be very good again, but a great defense doesn’t get gashed by running backs or make quarterbacks like Michigan’s and LSU’s look like great players.
    It’s time for UF’s defense to stop talking about being ‘DBU’ or saying that you are the best player, like Caleb Brantley, and actually prove it on the field. Talk is cheap, especially when you finish 25th in the country and act like you accomplished something.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Even though you are a troll and that by itself speaks volumes (trolling other teams’ websites, even rival teams, is the ultimate illustration of a person without a life), I think there is some truth to what you wrote. I am a Gator alum, born and bred. I bleed Orange and Blue, and yet I think the DBU thing is a bit of a joke myself after what Brandon Harris did to us last year (ironically, one of Treon’s better games in which he played well enough for us to win but the defense faltered as Sir Troll has written).

      However, in defense of our defense, it is built for speed and without an offense that can sustain drives–any defense–even a great defense–can wear down. The Michigan/Citrus Bowl egg embarrassment set aside, I think that was usually the problem and was certainly the problem against Bama and FSU. Our offense just couldn’t keep our defense off of the field for any length of time and they inevitably wore down as any defense eventually will.

      So, point taken, Troll. But in the games in which Grier was able to QB and our offense was dangerous, you’ll note the defense performed much better. The same will be true this year.

    • Typp-Drill says:

      I truly agree to disagree, prior to even posting. You bring up being gashed by the best running backs. If you played sports you know that if you have to play continuously that after a while you are beat up and exhausted. That’s what the defense had to face week in and week out since that first season of MissChamp. Now I will say that the bend and break attitude that we showed at times did, show a lack of greatness or lack of motivation to come out to start the game. But these defenses that were always top 10 in the country showed the ability to be great. Sometimes offense makes defenses look weak. So after adjustments Fournette was shut down…the defense wore down with Cook and Henry. But with Michigan they simply were not interested in the game….So I put that on the coaches. But I will say this with improved linebacker play and consistent offense this year, QUOTE ME….THIS WILL BE THE BEST DEFENSE FLORIDA HAD SINCE THE 96 CHAMPS!!!!!

    • Gator74 says:

      Umm yea sure hater

  2. SD Gator says:

    Let’s put aside the bowl game against Mich as a lot of less-experienced players had to play. Our defense definitely have ability to be great. The point is also our offense. After we lost our starting QB, our offense could not earn time to refresh our defense. Our first quarters against Bama and FSU were not bad. In those games, based on my recollection, our defense effectively masked Henry and Cook in the first half. However, continuous 3-and-punt made our defense gashed.

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