Middle of Gators defense facing scrutiny

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
1:00
PM ET
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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