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In a conversation with ESPN's Cary Chow, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton breaks down the recruiting momentum built by Florida State and the most important prospects from Florida.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jeff Driskel will be on a mission in Florida's spring game on Saturday.

His goal? Win over a skeptical fanbase.

"I want to show them that I'm confident," the junior quarterback said on Wednesday, "that I didn't let the Miami game or the injury take away from my confidence."

The Miami game in Week 2 still haunts Driskel, whose two red-zone interceptions and sack-fumble practically handed the Hurricanes a 21-16 win.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel's 2013 season didn't last very long, as the junior broken his leg in the third game of the season.
The injury, which came one week later against Tennessee, was a broken leg that required surgery and six months of rehab. On the play he got hurt, Driskel threw a pick-six.

By the time he limped off the field, more than a few fans were ready for a new quarterback. They had watched Driskel commit 13 turnovers (seven interceptions and six fumbles lost) in his previous eight games.

"I caught a lot of criticism, which was deserved," he said. "But I do think that over the course of the year, I would have been able to redeem myself. But if you make costly mistakes like that, what do you expect?"

What Driskel expects on Saturday is to look good in Florida's new offense. It's a spread-option attack, very similar to the offense he ran in high school, when he was recruited to be the next star quarterback in then-coach Urban Meyer's offense.

"I feel like it fits not just me but all of our players," Driskel said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays in space, and this offense creates space. We’ve made some big plays against our defense, which is exciting."

There hasn't been much excitement from Florida's offense since Will Muschamp replaced Meyer.

After a disastrous season in 2013, Muschamp hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper away from Duke to revive the offense ... and Driskel.

"He's talented, folks," Roper said. "I mean, we're sitting here talking about a guy that's really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It's not his first rodeo."

Roper watched Driskel in high school, knowing it was highly unlikely he could get the nation's top QB prospect to Duke.

"Now I get the luck of the draw here," Roper said. "That's a big, powerful, fast-twitch, natural throwing motion."

Driskel's arm has been on full display throughout Florida's spring practice, as has his experience in adapting to his third offense in just over three years.

"Jeff’s been through change before," Muschamp said, "so I think the more times you go through that stuff you kind of can handle it and move forward. The maturity takes over."

Nothing has shown Driskel's maturity this spring better than the way he has moved past the injuries and struggles that have hindered his Florida career.

He entered last season firmly believing he had reached a turning point. Then Miami happened, then he felt a pop, then his season was over.

"I thought I was going to have a really good year," he said. "I was throwing the ball well. Had a couple mistakes, costly mistakes, especially in that Miami game. But I felt like I was throwing the ball well. To have it all taken away was tough. ...

"I didn't really feel helpless. Discouraged, I would say, but not helpless. It was tough. It was tough. You know, you work in the whole offseason for the season and then you're excited for it, you think you're going to play well, and the next thing you know it's gone."

Gone, but not forgotten.

Muschamp has stood by Driskel and still believes in his talent. If there was one good thing that came from Driskel's short and turbulent 2013 season, it was Muschamp's faith in the heart and leadership that Driskel showed.

"To walk off the field after what happened to him?" the coach said. "Those doctors told me that's amazing. He's got great respect from his teammates because of the toughness he has."

Driskel's teammate and roommate, offensive lineman Trip Thurman, has seen it all up close -- the struggles, the rehab and now, the bounce-back on the spring practice fields.

"He just looks confident out there," Thurman said. "He knows this is his year. I know he doesn't like ending [last] season the way he did."

It's been a long road back, but Driskel says he is 100 percent. He might as well be talking about his confidence as much as his mended right leg.

All that's left to do this spring is get back on Florida Field in front of thousands of fans.

"I want to show everyone that I'm having fun out there playing the game," Driskel said.

A fun offense at Florida? Now that's a sure way to win back some fans.
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Year in and year out, the “big three” Florida schools always battle for the top in-state high school prospects. Last year was one of the wildest in recent memory for Florida, Florida State and Miami.

The Gators were able to land commitments from three prospects -- Ryan Sousa, C.J. Worton and J.C. Jackson -- who were previously committed to Florida State. The Noles responded by flipping Florida commitments Ermon Lane and Dalvin Cook. Miami was able to flip former FSU running back commit Joseph Yearby and Florida defensive tackle commit Anthony Moten. The Gators then flipped athlete Brandon Powell the day he was supposed to enroll at Miami.


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SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Twelve seconds.

That's how long it took for a bad snap on the first play of Super Bowl XLVIII to turn into a safety and set the tone for Seattle's blowout win against Denver.

Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper watched that game and said the challenge of snapping the ball is something he is cognizant of as he teaches his shotgun offense to a bunch of Gators who have three years of experience in pro-style offenses.

[+] EnlargeMax Garcia
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMax Garcia is trying to adjust to Florida's new offense playing center.
"It doesn't matter what level you're at, you still try to focus on that as much as you possibly can," he said. "And it's a skill. There's a lot going on for that guy up front other than just snapping that football. So you just try to keep getting better at it. That's why right now you don't see us alternating back and forth -- gun and under -- because we're trying to focus in on that. …

"Right now that five-yard snap, it's not easy. There's 300-pounders right over him on the snap of the ball coming off."

Any time a team loses a longtime starter at center, some bumps in the road can be expected.

Florida is experiencing just that this spring after the graduation of Jonotthan Harrison, who manned the position for three seasons.

Senior Max Garcia moved to the center position as the heir apparent. The former Maryland transfer played well in his first season for Florida -- mostly at guard -- and was the only offensive lineman who started every game.

Florida coaches have repeatedly praised Garcia as one of their better linemen, but he's still learning how to snap the ball. In an offense that will operate almost entirely out of the shotgun, that could be a bit of a problem.

Look no further than the comments of head coach Will Muschamp throughout spring practice to see the progression of this concern:

March 11 (before spring practice began): "We're going to look at Max Garcia at center, move him inside. [Cameron] Dillard has been a guy that's come along. Trip Thurman will play both center and guard. We'll move him around. Trip's had a really good offseason."

March 25: "Max has done a nice job making the calls up front. We’ve got to be a little more consistent with snapping the ball, which will come. That’s part of the transition there and we knew it was going to happen."

April 4: "I'm extremely concerned about some snapping issues that continue to occur. I think the first couple of practices and some newness in there, I can kind of get that. After a while we've got to move past that."

April 8 (after UF's second scrimmage): "We still had a couple [bad snaps]. Disappointed. … If we continue to have those we need to look in a different direction. We can't afford to have that anymore."

As the veteran of the group and the only contender with starting experience, Garcia still has an overwhelming edge to win the job. He also has Roper's confidence.

"I mean you always want to get better," Roper said. "I don't want the ball off-center or rolling on the ground. All that has to do with timing in the run game and exchanges and all that.

"But am I happy with the way Max is working and trying? Yeah. And do I think he can do it and be really good at it? I do. I think he's talented."

Thurman, a fourth-year junior, has spent most of the spring at left guard with the starting unit. He emerged as a candidate after the struggles of Garcia and Dillard, a redshirt freshman.

"I've taken snaps at center before we start practice, so I'm getting used to that," Thurman said. "Shotgun snaps are a whole lot different than having someone under center. You've got to have the same snap, every snap whether you're going right or left. So it's difficult, but it's something that we need to get used to with this uptempo offense."

Though it's a growing concern, Muschamp said on Tuesday he's optimistic it can be fixed.

"We feel like we've remedied the issue," he said. "As a snapper you can't break your wrist. That's when you create high snaps, when you start breaking your wrist. A couple of situations we were going on silent count, going off the center’s head and when the center’s head comes up he’s got to snap it. He can’t elevate his pads in those situations.

"You create a limp snap to the quarterback, which is a low snap and hard to deal with, which takes a quarterback’s eyes further off the downfield reads and things he’s got to do, it creates an issue for the entire offense. Improved, but not where it needs to be. One bad snap is one too many."

Just ask the Denver Broncos.

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kelvin Taylor arrived at Florida last year with all the fanfare one would expect of an elite recruit who also happened to be the son of a school legend.

He didn't really factor into Florida's running game, however, until an injury ended the season of starter Matt Jones in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesKelvin Taylor finished the 2013 season with 508 yards on 111 carries for the Gators.
It must have felt like an eternity for Taylor, who had been his team's focal point since he was an eighth-grader.

"I wasn't really discouraged," he said. "I was just like, 'Wow, Mack Brown and Matt Jones are out there.' I was just cheering those guys on and learning, trying to get better every day in practice, just trying to do something to impress the coach to put me out there. ...

"I just sat back and watched film, did things like that, took coaching and tried to get better every day."

When he got his chance, Taylor lived up to the hype. He showed that he was ready and was indeed as talented as his famous father, Fred Taylor.

Kelvin Taylor started four of the last five games, finished the season with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

Florida coach Will Muschamp knew he had a special talent in Taylor, but the freshman's behavior when he wasn't playing made an ever bigger impression.

"Very humble, just a hard-working guy," Muschamp said. "He never said a whole lot. Kelvin’s a team guy. He’s been raised right. He’s a really good young man. He’s all about the team. He’s all about the University of Florida. He knew there were some things in protection he needed to clean up moving forward. There was nothing that he wasn’t willing to work at and didn’t recognize.

"With good players, that’s normally the deal. They realize there’s things they need to work on, there’s things they need to improve on and that’s why he is a good player. He’s talented, but he realizes the things he needs to do."

With Jones still recovering from a torn meniscus, Taylor has been the lead dog in a stable of running backs.

"We've got a lot of great running backs in there," he said. "Me, Mack Brown, Mark [Herndon], Matt Jones, [Adam] Lane, all those guys, Brandon Powell, the freshman that just came in. I think all those guys will help us."

Taylor has worked hard to take the starting job and hold off his competition. A year after enrolling early and participating in his first spring practices, he has the look of a confident sophomore poised to take the next step.

"I feel like I got stronger and a whole lot faster working with Coach [Jeff] Dillman," he said. "All those guys pushing me everyday, working me harder. My lower body got a lot more powerful. ... Now I got a year underneath my belt, so I'm practicing well, playing faster, more used to the speed of the game."

Taylor's teammates, especially his backfield mates, say they can tell. They're expecting big things this fall.

"He's not really worrying or thinking too much," senior fullback Hunter Joyer said. "He's just going out, playing full speed."

It's helped that the entire offense has made a smooth transition to a new no-huddle, spread scheme that operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation.

"This offense is a little different for these guys in how they're getting the ball," Muschamp said. "We still run the counter. We still run the power. We still run the inside run. We still run the stretch. But their angles to the line of scrimmage are a little different, and I think they've all adjusted very well."

Even with just a couple of weeks of hands-on experience, Taylor and the rest of Florida's playmakers are loving the new offense. They're getting used to a much faster tempo and are thrilled to get the ball in open space.

That kind of success has bred confidence and even led to a bold prediction or two.

"This year we're going to bounce back," Taylor said. "We're going to have a great season. We're just ready. We can't wait till the first game of the season just to show the nation what we're working with this year."

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.

Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.

"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."

The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.

It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators believe Dante Fowler Jr. could be a special player when it comes to rushing the passer.
Since Muschamp's first season with the Gators in 2011, when a sophomore named Ronald Powell led the team with six sacks, the pass rush has been anemic. Dominique Easley led the team with four sacks in 2012. Powell led UF last season with four as well.

In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.

Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.

He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.

"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him. …

"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."

Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.

"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."

Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.

"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.

"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."

Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?

Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.

"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. … He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."

The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.

"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."

Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.

"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."

Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.

"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."

Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael Taylor is like any student about to embark on his final year of college. Time has flown fast, and there's a sobering finality about being a senior.

The Florida linebacker is more serious. He has his priorities lined up.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Taylor hopes to lead by example to help get the Gators back to their winning ways.
For his last season in orange and blue, Taylor isn't worried about being first team or second team. He's just focused on the whole team and getting the Gators back to their winning ways.

"Mike in our mind is a starter for us," Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Thursday. "Yeah, he does reps with the ones, the twos and all over the place. He's one of our most experienced guys obviously. Mike knows the defense really well.

"Talking about a leader and a valuable guy, you can't say enough about Mike Taylor for us."

It all stems from Florida's 4-8 record last fall and the soul searching that naturally occurs as a result. Looking back, some of the Gators have said there was no leadership last season.

"Wrong kind of leadership," Taylor said. "More vocal, rather than action. You know, we need action rather than just people saying what they're going to do or just telling people what to do.

"Guys will try to be vocal leaders and try say every word in the dictionary, but you can do it all you want if you're not setting the right example."

At this point in a spring full of burgeoning optimism, there's less of a need for speeches. To a man, the Gators say they're more focused on closeness and leading by example.

Taylor has grown into the role of mentor. Last year, he took then-freshman linebacker Jarrad Davis under his wing. This year it's sophomore LB Daniel McMillian.

"When I came in, I was kind of lost in the system," Davis said. "He reached out to me and he pulled me along. Once I got on my feet, he was a guy that I could always still lean on and definitely go to if I'm not seeing things right.

"If I need somebody just to talk to about anything, Mike Taylor is that guy for me. I really love him and appreciate him for that."

By the end of his freshman season, Davis made a splash and even got into the starting lineup. A few months later, Taylor speaks with a sense of pride when he tells people to look for Davis to make an even bigger impact this fall.

The same thing is happening with McMillian, whom Durkin calls one of the most improved players on the team this spring.

"[Taylor] has been great for D-Mac and some of the younger guys, because Mike is that type of guy," Durkin said. "He takes time to bring another guy along. He has spent time with Daniel off the field, too."

With so much of Taylor's time and effort going to help younger teammates, one might think he was preparing to take a back seat. But Taylor is coming off of his best season after leading the Gators in tackles.

This spring in another story, however. It's as if being a senior has inspired Taylor.

On a team so badly in need of respected voices, the mantle of leadership has fallen squarely on his shoulders.

"Mike really did step it up," Davis said. "He always takes the game seriously and he always takes everything we do seriously. But this year, something feels different. Something feels different being around him, practicing with him, everything. I don’t know what it is. It’s too early to tell."

Perhaps it was the gut-punch of a 4-8 record that sharpened Taylor's approach. Perhaps it's just the natural way of things -- a senior knowing he has only so much time left on campus.

"I've been talking to coaches," Taylor said. "They say this is the best time of your life, so I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy this time ... and yeah, have fun."

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
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LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
PM ET
It's not exactly like the fall, but at least we'll have some football (spring) games this weekend. Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and see what's happening as the final spring scrimmages approach at some of the league's schools.

Getting to know Shy Tuttle 

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
10:00
AM ET
Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

LEXINGTON, N.C. -- When going down the list of the most productive players in the Class of 2015, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle might be at the top.

In three varsity seasons, Tuttle, No. 12 in the ESPN Junior 300, has more than 230 tackles, including over 50 tackles for loss and more than 30 sacks.
According to North Davidson head coach Mark Holcomb, there are more reasons for his success than just raw talent.

“He is stronger and quicker than the kids he’s lined up against, so he’s able to push kids on this level around,” Holcomb said. “But he plays hard, runs to the ball, and effort is something you can’t coach, and he came here with that. He plays hard, lifts hard and just does things the right way.”


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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jonathan Bullard expected to be one of the Gators' best players last season. Wanted it badly.

He came to Florida in 2012 as the No. 4-ranked defensive end prospect in the nation and put pressure on himself to produce even more after a solid freshman season.

But injuries forced him to play part of last season at defensive tackle, a position he had never played before.

[+] EnlargePeterman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida's Jonathan Bullard has embraced a move to DT and is ready to wreak havoc on opposing offenses this fall.
He was lost amidst 600-pound double teams.

"If you know how to do something, you can do it full speed," he said. "But you're second-guessing yourself at something you haven’t done. You’re not moving as fast as you can. If you’re thinking too much, the ball is snapping and you’ve got a 300-pounder in front of you. You ain’t got time to think. So it was just different."

It showed in his production, on his face and in his body language.

"The coaches knew that I was kind of frustrated moving inside," he said. "I figured most people could tell that it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do."

Teammates tried to encourage Bullard to follow in the footsteps of former Gators Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, who had played both positions before him.

"I talked to him about it most of the time," offensive lineman Trenton Brown said. "But I just try to tell him, 'Try to do what's best for the team. I know you didn't see yourself coming here to play three-technique, but it's best for the team and it'll show that you're versatile.'"

That is the personal impetus for Bullard. Floyd was a first-round draft pick, and Easley is looking to be selected early in the NFL draft in May. The benefits of playing inside and out, of showing that versatility on your game tape, led Bullard to seek the advice of Easley, who has been in town to prepare for his personal pro day in a few weeks.

"Actually, Ease has been around lately and it kind of happened to him," Bullard said. "He bumped outside and wanted to stay inside. I’m the opposite. I'm going from the outside and really not wanting to go inside. He just talked to me, told me to embrace it and work at it hard."

Bullard did just that in the offseason after head coach Will Muschamp called him into his office to discuss the move and why it was necessary.

"All offseason I’ve been working at it because I know we’re kind of light there now and had a couple of players out, so I was going to play a lot of it," he said. "Now I’ve got the hang of it and I can read things better at D-tackle like I could at end. Now it’s kind of even.

"To be honest, I’m actually trying to embrace it and enjoy it rather than last year, not wanting to but knowing I had to. So now I'm trying to embrace it and do it at a high level."

Muschamp believes the high-level results are already there.

"Jon Bullard I think is playing his best football," he said on Tuesday. "He's playing really well inside. ... I think Jon is a very good nickel rusher inside and he can really match up on some of the guards in our league."

The offensive linemen he goes up against in practice have certainly noticed.

"It's definitely a challenge," said junior OT Tyler Moore. "He's definitely stepped up his game this year. He's one of our better D-linemen, and he's showing that every day."

It didn't take long for Bullard to see the advantages his size and quickness would allow on the interior. Now he loves going up against guards and centers.

"You can definitely tell that they’re slower than the tackles," he said. "And also you’re closer to the ball, so you can read it better. Now I’ve gotten real good at it. At end, I just look at the tackle, but now that I'm inside I try to look at the two guards and the center. Sometimes you can kind of tell what’s about to happen before it happens. If you get that right, you can disrupt the play."

Since Floyd and Easley moved on, the Gators have searched for that disruptive presence inside. Bullard says he's the one to bring it back.

The smile has returned to his face. He says with a wink that he's got the defensive tackle position down. Bullard's body language is as easy to read as ever. He knows he's having a productive spring despite not taking a single snap at defensive end.

"This spring," he said, "I’ve been all inside."

And all in.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ever the perfectionist, Florida coach Will Muschamp was not happy with his run defense last season.

Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.

Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison is trying to mature in his role as the QB of Will Muschamp's defense.
"Our defense needs to handle and respond better to the tempo, especially our young defensive linemen understanding getting aligned, getting the call," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "All those things that a hurry-up offense creates angst with, we did not handle very well defensively.

"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."

Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.

The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.

"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...

"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."

As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.

"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.

"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."

This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.

"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.

"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."

Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.

Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.

"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.

"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."

Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.

"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.

"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."

With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.

"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."

Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.

"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."

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