Confidence grows in Gator defense

Florida cornerback Ahmad Black runs to catch a pass during a passing drill during practice on Friday.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, April 11, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 12, 2008 at 12:13 a.m.

Nothing on the tape stunned or surprised him. It only confirmed what Vance Bedford had seen live, from the opposing sideline, several weeks earlier in the Capital One Bowl. Florida's defense appeared young and vulnerable.

"I looked at the tape again when I got here," said Bedford, the new UF cornerbacks coach who was the Michigan secondary coach last season. "Until that Michigan game, I think the defense did an outstanding job last year. They were so young, and each game they got better.

"Sometimes when you have a long layoff with a young team. ... I think that's what we saw in that particular game. I think it was more of an experience thing."

Whatever the reason for the lapse, it was a defensive disaster for the Gators in their

41-35 loss to Michigan on Jan. 1.

After showing improvement during a four-game winning streak to end the 2007 regular season, all the earlier problems on defense came roaring back with a vengeance in Orlando.

The defense couldn't put any pressure on Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, couldn't cover the Wolverines fleet receivers, and the Gators were shredded for 373 yards passing and 524 total yards.

The Michigan tape has been required viewing for Florida's defensive coaches and players. It's been a tough way to start 2008, but it had to be done.

"It hurt to watch," linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "But we needed to see it."

It was the first step in the process of breaking down the defense and beginning a reconstruction project, one that has been moving forward this spring.

"We felt really bad after that game," sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said. "That tape was hard to look at. After we watched it, the coaches basically told us no one had anything in the bank. We were all starting from scratch and we needed to come out here and work as hard as we can and get better as a unit."

In the Michigan game, the Gators started two true freshmen (Haden and free safety Major Wright) in one of the nation's youngest secondaries. Going into the season, strong safety Tony Joiner was the only starter with any game experience at all.

Given that the Gators gave up 373 yards in the air to the Wolverines, the natural assumption is to blame the secondary, and the cornerbacks in particular. UF coach Urban Meyer would not go there when he viewed the tape.

"It's very easy to start blaming corners, and sometimes people do that," Meyer said.

"My job is not to blame, but to try to come up with a solution.

"To sit there in a meeting room and just start blaming corners, that's not acceptable, and we didn't do that. That's a good thing."

In breaking down the tape (and the overall defensive performance last season), Meyer said it was obvious the inexperienced secondary was only a part of the problem. The lack of a pass rush also contributed heavily to all those big plays and all those passing yards.

"When we were tremendous in pass-efficiency defense two years ago, there was a

correlation between pressure on the quarterback and pass defense," Meyer said. "Pass rush was very inadequate last season. As a result, we gave up far too many plays downfield.

"Those are two of the areas we've been working hard on this spring. I'd have to say the back end (secondary) has improved more than the front end (defensive line). The front still has a long way to go."

The consensus among the coaches is that the cornerbacks have made great strides this spring and are playing with more confidence and doing a better job of locking down receivers and breaking on the ball. There are more athletes and there is more competition going on at those positions. That's pretty much the story with the safeties as well.

"I think our corners are our most improved area," Meyer said. "Is it because of something? Yeah, because they were freshmen last season and now they're sophomores with game experience. That's maturity. Vance and (safeties coach) Chuck Heater are doing a heck of a job back there."

With experience, comes maturity. With maturity, comes confidence, Haden said.

"I think the biggest difference is we're playing with confidence now in the secondary," Haden said. "It's studying a lot of film and knowing our techniques better, knowing the concept of the defense better.

"I feel like everyone (on defense) is so much more confident than they were last year.

Everyone knows what to do and everyone feels more comfortable. I'm a lot more comfortable playing corner now."

Before he arrived at UF last summer, Haden had never played cornerback. The fact he started at the position as a true freshman illustrates how little experience the Gators had in the secondary. Three of the top four cornerbacks (Haden, Markihe Anderson and Jacques Rickerson) were freshmen. The other (Wondy Pierre-Louis) was a true sophomore with zero experience. Then there was a true freshman (Wright) starting at safety.

Throw in little to no help from the pass rush, and it added up to a defensive disaster

at times.

"The defensive line is still a concern, but coach (Dan) McCarney is doing a great job," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "The strength right now has to be the linebackers, and the secondary has really come on. If you're looking for improvement, it's been the secondary.

"There is a lot of competition at the corner positions and the guys are playing well. We didn't have a lot of defensive backs last season. Now we do."

The Gators have had plenty of motivation. Mainly, that Michigan tape.

"We've taken it to heart to get better," Spikes said. "A lot of guys are growing up and taking steps. The secondary has opened my eyes. They came out here determined to get better this spring, and they have. You can see it in their performance."

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