Strong Florida defense seeking improvement


Sophomore Dante Fowler Jr. is part of a Florida defense that is leading the SEC in total defense.

Rob C. Witzel/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.

On the surface, Florida’s defense looks as stout as 2012.

The Gators rank first in the nation in third-down defense, holding opposing teams to 8.3 percent (2 of 24) on third-down conversions. Florida also ranks first in the SEC in total defense (208.5 yards allowed per game), first in run defense (50 ypg) and second in scoring defense (13.5 ppg).

Two weeks ago against Miami, Florida recorded seven three-and-outs and limited All-ACC running back Duke Johnson to just 59 yards on 21 carries.

And yet, players and coaches feel UF’s defense can play better.

“We’ve done some nice things at times,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “I don’t think we’ve been as consistent as we’ve needed to be, giving up too many big plays that we’re not used to around here. We need to continue to improve.”

No. 19 Florida (1-1) will try to achieve that higher level of defensive play Saturday when it hosts Tennessee.

“Our guys see it on film,” Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “There is a lot for us to clean up on tape. A lot of that stuff statistically falls where it may. It’s not by any means what we talk about or our concern.”

One area of concern for UF’s defense — getting off to better starts. Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley admitted the Gators were thrown off by Miami’s up-tempo offense in the first quarter. The Hurricanes took advantage, scoring touchdowns on two of their first three drives to build an early 14-6 lead.

“Our goal is not to let an offense score, period,” Easley said. “So once we get that stat, I think we can be considered one of the best defenses … in my life, I play for perfection. If there’s no perfection, there’s no greatness.”

Durkin shouldered some of the blame for UF’s early struggles on defense against Miami.

“We’ve got to be ready to go right from the get-go,” Durkin said. “We’re going to face more of those offenses. This offense we’re facing this week (Tennessee), they’re a tempo team.

“That’s kind of become the thing we’re going to see more often in our conference and throughout college football. Everyone is talking about that, now. I thought we handled it better in the first game than we did in the second so we’ve got to get better at it.”

Takeaways are another area where UF can get better. The Gators have forced just two turnovers in two games, both interceptions recorded by true freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

“There are some things that we can do technique-wise, fundamentally to get better results there,” Muschamp said.

As a result, Muschamp made some changes on the depth chart on defense this week. Senior Jaylen Watkins will replace redshirt freshman Marcus Maye at starting strong safety after Maye was burned in deep coverage on a 52-yard Miami touchdown pass. The move also opens up more playing time at cornerback for Hargreaves, whose maturity and ability belies his experience.

Up front, Antonio Morrison is moving back to the starting position at middle linebacker with Ronald Powell on the strongside and Neiron Ball on the weakside. Powell leads the Gators with two sacks, but the Gators have yet to get a sack from self-proclaimed “Bash Brothers” Easley and Jon Bullard.

“They’ve been inconsistent, and again I think that’s been the message across the board for our guys,” Durkin said. “We need to know what we’re going to get from every down, from everyone.”

Florida players are confident they cleaned up some of those issues during the bye week. The Gators will get challenged facing a Tennessee team that ranks seventh in the SEC in scoring offense at 37 points per game.

“We definitely have the potential to be better than we were last year,” Watkins said. “So we’re looking forward to coming out this week and trying to reach that.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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