Forward focus: UF's defensive line
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 5:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 1:25 a.m.
The Florida Gators experienced a considerable bump in Will Muschamp's second season, going from 7-6 in 2011 to 11-2 in 2012 with a berth in a BCS bowl game.
So, what happens in Year 3?
With so many players departing through a combination of graduation, transfers and leaving early for the NFL, UF is a team in transition as it moves forward into 2013.
Over the next few weeks, The Sun will break down the Gators by position to give readers an idea what to expect this UF team to look like in the fall.
Today: Defensive line.
Three of the four starters have to be replaced, the big one being defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who had a dominant junior season and projects to be an NFL first-round draft pick in April. He, along with senior tackle Omar Hunter, helped the defensive front control the interior line of scrimmage and shut down opposing running games last season. The third departing starter, senior Buck end/linebacker Lerentee McCray, had his most productive season in 2012 and was one of UF's most active pass rushers coming off the edge. Earl Okine, who provided quality minutes at tackle last season, also graduates. Also gone is senior defensive end Kedric Johnson, who has decided to transfer after missing the 2012 season with a knee injury. Almost all of his past playing time came on special teams.
Senior tackle Dominique Easley's decision not to follow his good buddy Floyd into the NFL Draft was crucial for the Gators. He came on strong in the second half of the 2012 season and figures to move back inside full time after playing a lot of defensive end. The future is back at defensive end, where Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard showed such great promise by seeing considerable playing time as true freshmen last season. With a year's experience, Fowler and Bullard have a chance to emerge as elite SEC defensive players in 2013. It's big that they're back. It may be even bigger that Ronald Powell is expected back after missing last season following ACL surgery. He won't participate in spring practice, but the junior Buck end/linebacker is expected to be 100 percent for the start of camp in August. The coaches think he has a chance to be a dynamic playmaker at a position that seems a perfect fit for his skill set. Also back are last season's backup defensive tackles, Damien Jacobs and Leon Orr. Jacobs is a leading contender to earn a starting job at tackle in the spring, while Orr has a chance to be a major contributor if he improves his consistency.
If Jacobs doesn't nail down the starting role at the DT position next to Easley, it likely will be junior college transfer Darious Cummings. A former Florida State signee, Cummings is physically ready to step in and play, and he's already on campus and will be competing for a starting role in the spring. Another newcomer to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams, who came in a bit undersized last summer but has bulked up considerably during his redshirt year. UF coach Will Muschamp mentioned late in the season, and after the Sugar Bowl, that Williams has a chance to be a major contributor in 2013. Two other redshirt freshmen — Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. — could get into the mix at end and should provide depth, along with true freshman Joey Ivie, an early enrollee. Joining the competition in August will be true freshman Antonio Riles, Caleb Brantley and Jordan Sherit. Brantley could see early time at DT, where depth is an issue.
If the Gators can avoid injuries, the defensive front, led by Easley, Powell, Bullard and Fowler has a chance to be very good. The lack of proven depth at all four positions, however, is a major issue heading into the spring and next season.
Stronger or weaker in 2013?
The Gators lose their dominant player inside (Floyd), but the pass rush has a chance to be much better with the return of Powell and the expected improvement of Fowler and Bullard now that they have a year of experience playing in the SEC. Depth is a concern, but UF's starting four have a chance to be stronger than a year ago.
2013 probable depth chart
6-Dante Fowler Jr.
94-Bryan Cox Jr.