D-tackle still 'the problem'
Published: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 3:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 3:50 p.m.
Florida broke camp after its final preseason scrimmage Tuesday. But the Gators checked out of their hotel with one major piece of unfinished business to take care of between now and the Aug. 30 opener against Hawaii.
Defensive tackle remains unsettled and a major concern.
"It's a problem, it's still the problem," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "We see some guys doing some good things, and we're also going to play some three-down (players on the line). But that's one issue that's yet to be resolved. However, there are some guys close."
With the Gators now game-planning for Hawaii, UF has only one tackle at this late stage the coaches consider a starter — sophomore Lawrence Marsh.
"Marsh is our starter right now," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "He's definitely our starter, with 10 or 11 days to solidify that. He's been our most consistent (tackle). If we were playing tomorrow, Marsh would be our starting nose guard."
Marsh's backup at nose is junior college transfer Troy Epps. Behind Epps is true freshman Omar Hunter, who has been battling a back issue, but practiced for the second consecutive day Tuesday.
At the other tackle, there is no starter at this point, McCarney said. Terron Sanders, Jaye Howard and Javier Estopinan are competing for the role. There's a chance true freshman Matt Patchan could enter the fray next week. He's been held out of practice while rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle, but appears close to returning.
"We're rolling guys in there right now," McCarney said. "Patchan is the only guy who hasn't practiced yet and he was our starter coming out of spring ball. I think we've been real smart about his rehab.
"We're basing a lot of it on what he's doing in the weight room. He's getting his strength back. I'd much rather be a little conservative right now bringing him back and having him for the season instead of bringing him back too soon and losing him for six to eight weeks. He's staying in great shape and he's working out."
The tackle position could get a boost next week with the expected return of sophomore Brandon Antwine, who missed the 2007 season with a serious back issue that was considered career-threatening last fall.
"He's down there rehabbing," Meyer said. "They say he's going to come out to practice when school starts (Monday). That's almost a miracle. He had a severe issue with his back, but I guess he's going to come out next week. I hope (he can be a factor)."
With the uncertainty at the one tackle position, the Gators have a plan to alleviate the potential problem in some instances by playing a three-man front (nose tackle and two ends).
"You go in with another linebacker or another nickel back," Meyer said. "It looks like we'll be in a 3-3-5. We see a lot of one-back teams. When you see two backs and a tight end, we'll be in sure four down. But we'll play some three down."
McCarney said the new three-down scheme was devised by defensive coordinator Charlie Strong.
"Matching personnel nowadays with three down linemen is something that's really good," McCarney said. "I think Charlie Strong has put together a great package.
"We've all talked about it and had a little input, but it's Charlie's deal. Our three-down package I think is really good. It's complex and we can do a lot of things out of it."
While tackle play remains an issue, the coaches say they feel good about the end positions.
Junior Jermaine Cunningham, who started all 13 games last season, has shown major improvement. Sophomore Carlos Dunlap has been impressive at the other end, and there appears to be depth at both positions, McCarney said.
"Cunningham was a solid player last year. Jermaine Cunningham needs to be more than solid," McCarney said. "I'm not buying solid in 2008. I don't think he is, either. My expectations are that he is a lot better than solid and average. He needs to be a better player. He needs to make more game-changing plays."
Behind Cunningham are sophomore Duke Lemmens and true freshman William Green, perhaps the surprise of camp.
"(Green) will be in the mix," McCarney said. "We've already made the decision we're going to play him. He'll be on special teams and he'll help us (at end). Because of his quickness, his speed and his effort, we've got to play him this year."
McCarney said his plan is to liberally rotate players at all the end positions.
"Unlike last year, when guys were on the field too long for too many snaps, we're going to roll more guys in," McCarney said. "I made my mind up a long time ago and I think these guys have bought into that and they're proving they deserve some playing time."
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