Notebook: New-look defense

Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 10:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 10:15 p.m.

A year ago, UF’s defense was almost an afterthought going into spring practice. After all, the defending national champion Gators returned their top 22 players on defense, so it was just a matter of how well they would perform.

Fast forward to the opening day of spring practice Wednesday, and the situation has definitely changed. The Gators not only have to replace standout performers like cornerback Joe Haden, safety Major Wright, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper, and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham, but the defense itself is getting adjusted to two new coaches in coordinator Teryl Austin and linebackers coach D. J. Durkin.

Safeties coach and assistant defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, now in his sixth year with Florida, has been at UF longer than anybody else on the defensive side of the ball. He said spring practice will be a little more special this year.

“In one sense, it’s tremendous because it’s an influx of new ideas,” said Heater, a 34-year veteran of coaching in the collegiate ranks. “It’s rejuvenating, and it causes you to talk things out and be more specific. It makes you a better football coach.

“Of course, it’s always uncomfortable if there’s things you are changing, and that’s just natural. But I think my experience has always been those are the great growth periods, so I’m really fired up about what we’re doing, some of the things we’ve already done and the new ideas we have.”

Heater said it will just take time before the new defensive staff gels.

“Getting the first day of practice in is always great,” he said. “It’s like ‘OK, knock off the rust, we’re good to go, it’s all fitting together fine.’ I mean, you angst so much about how it’s all going to fit together, and today was really fun.”

Heater noted there will be changes, but said it was too early to discuss specifics.

“There’s a lot of things we did that were obviously solid, and there’s a lot of other thoughts as well and we’re integrating them,” he said. “In some respects, we needed to move in a new direction. Coach Austin and coach Durkin both have a lot of experience, and it’s a good mixture of guys and thoughts.”

BRANTLEY’S DAD ON SIDELINE: On his first official day as UF’s starting quarterback, redshirt junior John Brantley had plenty of sideline support from his father, John Brantley III, despite the latter being just one week removed from prostate cancer surgery.

Papa Brantley was in good spirits and gave his son two thumbs up for his opening performance.

“I thought he looked OK,” he said. “I mean, it’s tough coming out here the first day and be that guy with so many people around and everything. But he’s ready for this. He’s cool as a cucumber, and I think he’ll handle it well. He’s just excited to get out here with his teammates and get this year going.”

The elder Brantley, himself a former UF quarterback, said he is recovering nicely from surgery.

“I’m doing good,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I had a great doctor and everything’s going well.”

BACK IN THE SADDLE: One positive from the opening day of practice was seeing a number of players back to full strength who either missed significant playing time last season, or, in some cases, missed the entire season. Among those spotted returning to duty were wide receivers Andre DeBose and Carl Moore, tight end Desmond Parks, linebackers Brandon Beal and Jelani Jenkins, cornerback Moses Jenkins and defensive tackle Brandon Antwine.

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