Florida Gators: Alex McCalister
The backups: Sophomores ends Bryan Cox Jr., and Alex McCalister, redshirt freshmen tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick
The rest: Sophomore Joey Ivie, redshirt freshman Jordan Sherit and true freshmen Taven Bryan, Thomas Holley, Khairi Clark, Justus Reed and Gerald Willis III
The lowdown: The Gators' defensive line has lost proven commodities such as Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley to the NFL in the last two years, but the turnstiles keep moving as more talent emerges. The focal point in 2014 will be Fowler, a hybrid DE/LB who combines power and quickness to provide some serious pass rush from the edge. Coach Will Muschamp is hoping Fowler will command doubleteams and allow the rest of the line to flourish as well. While Fowler dominated spring practice, the coaching staff experimented with Bullard moving to defensive tackle on passing downs. That move gives more opportunities to Cox, who made a move up the depth chart. At defensive tackle, the Gators are looking for improved play from Orr and Cummings, two seniors who haven't done much more than stuff the run and occupy blockers. Overall, there is a big gap between the first and second units, as Muschamp complained on more than one occasion about the stamina and motors of backup tackles Brantley and Bostwick. He's hoping the next wave of high-level talent coming this fall pushes for playing time. Willis and Holley, the nation's No. 2- and 3-ranked defensive tackles, respectively, have a chance to step into backup roles immediately.
The future: With so many freshmen and sophomores already poised to play in 2014, the future is rock solid. Florida is likely to redshirt at least two of its five DL signees from the 2014 class. But the line is an area where top prospects can make a huge difference. In Muschamp's three seasons, the Gators have ranked No. 8, No. 5 and No. 5 nationally in total defense, and they did it without a consistent pass rush. The 2015 class has the potential to push UF into a defensive stratosphere with so many elite prospects in the state of Florida. The Gators already have a commitment from DL Andrew Ivie, Joey's brother. The top targets are DE Byron Cowart and DL CeCe Jefferson, two of top 10 overall players in the country.
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.
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.
Stout defense has been the identity of the Florida Gators under coach Will Muschamp. It has carried the team and its dysfunctional offense for years. But something was off in 2013.
Florida fielded its usual dominant pass defense, allowing just nine TDs through the air (second-fewest in the country). But the run defense slipped from a No. 4 ranking in 2012 to No. 33 last season (allowing 47.5 more rushing yards per game), including an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern in which Florida gave up 429 yards -- all on the ground.
But after a week of picking on the offense in identifying the five position groups that have room to improve, the final installment of this series has to focus on the defense.
Because everything starts up front, we'll look at the defensive line. It had plenty to do with the run defense getting worse in 2013, and it had its worst season in years in terms of applying pressure to quarterbacks.
Florida had 19 sacks in 12 games last season, down from 30 in 13 games the year before and continuing a downward trend since recording 39 sacks in 14 games in 2009.
Battling for No. 1: Florida has solid bookends in buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and strong-side end Jonathan Bullard. Their talent is undeniable, but the production just does not match it. One or two splashy games a season isn't good enough. But UF's ends also need more help from their interior linemen. When Florida lost senior DT Dominique Easley to injury, the threat of a push up the middle was gone. The starters at defensive tackle this fall are likely to be seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, but unless they show dramatic improvement in disrupting opponents, Florida is going to need contributions from some newcomers.
Strength in numbers: Muschamp said the Gators are excited about three defensive tackles who redshirted last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles -- saying each has "the athleticism and the girth to play the position." Florida could also get a contribution from Joey Ivie. He was the only D-lineman who didn't redshirt in 2013 and can play inside or outside. At defensive end, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister stepped forward as backups last season. It's important for either of those two, or redshirt freshman end Jordan Sherit, to take the next step and improve Florida's pass rush this fall.
New on the scene: The Gators signed a terrific defensive lineman class in 2014. Gerald Willis III, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound prospect ranked No. 42 overall in the nation, can play end or tackle and could make an immediate impact. Tackles Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark are highly touted but raw talents who could redshirt but have the bodies to play immediately. Early enrollee defensive end Taven Bryan has already drawn raves from Muschamp, who said, "he's explosive. He's got really good flexibility in his lower body. He's got a great motor, a great work ethic. We are extremely pleased." Florida also signed buck linebacker prospect Justus Reed, an ESPN 300 talent with potential who is likely to redshirt while he adds bulk and strength to his 6-3, 215-pound frame.
Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.
As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.
On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.
LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.
His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.
DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.
LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.
DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.
Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.
A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.
The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.
The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.
"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.
"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."
Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.
This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.
Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).
Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).
It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.
And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.
"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.
"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."
Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:
Ideal number: 15-17
Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.
Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.
Ideal number: 8-10
Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.
Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.
Ideal number: 6-8
Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.
Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.
Ideal number: 4-6
Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.
Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.
Ideal number: 9-12
Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.
Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.
Ideal number: 3-5
Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.
Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.
But Lawing did bring one of the things that helped Clowney become one of the country’s most feared pass rushers.
Now Lawing, Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin are tinkering with it as the Gators continue their preseason practices.
"Who will that package be?" Muschamp said. "We’re searching for the right guys. We think we have a pretty good handle on who they may be, but you never know. We’ve got to continue to search through those guys and find your best four rushers, and then who’s five, who’s six, who’s seven?"
Even though Florida’s pass rush was better last season than it had been the previous two (the Gators recorded 30 sacks in 2012, the most since it had 40 in 2009), there’s plenty of room to improve. The Gators appear to have the personnel to be better, especially with the return of redshirt junior buck Ronald Powell, and adding the rabbits package will certainly help.
It’s easy to identify UF’s top four pass rushers: Powell, sophomore Dante Fowler Jr., sophomore Jonathan Bullard and senior Dominique Easley. Powell and Fowler are hybrid defensive ends/strongside linebackers. Bullard is an end and Easley can play both end and tackle. The group, which has a combined 16.5 career sacks, are all starters but also will likely comprise the rabbits package, with Easley moving over to nose tackle.
Bullard and Fowler played key roles as freshmen last season, helping pick up the slack in the rush that was created when Powell (seven career sacks) suffered a torn ACL in the spring game and missed the entire season. Bullard led the team with seven quarterback hurries, while Fowler had 2.5 sacks.
Muschamp said Powell has looked very good in camp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said the pass rush has given the offense trouble.
"They’re very athletic," Pease said. "When you have Easley and Bullard and then you throw in Dante. Now Dante, depending how they use him, he’s such a weapon because he’s a down guy, pass rusher, pass coverage guy, very physical, he’s so heavy-handed. He’s a tough kid to block.
"And then when you throw Ronald in there ..."
Muschamp isn’t sure how much he’s going to use the rabbits package. He said the Gators did a solid job with the pass rush last season and the addition of Powell and the maturation and improvement of Fowler and Bullard should automatically make them better.
Plus, Florida plays mostly man coverage and offenses counter that with six- and seven-man protections to give quarterbacks extra time to throw the ball.
"I think we gave up less explosive plays in the passing game than anybody in the country [last season]," Muschamp said. "I think we gave up less touchdowns than [all but four] teams in the country. So I think we were very efficient in the passing game. And that's not just from a coverage standpoint, that's from a rush standpoint."
But it’s nice to have the package available, especially if it allows the Gators to begin to develop younger players like redshirt freshmen Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister.
No. 95 Alex McCalister
Redshirt freshman buck
Florida signed 23 players in 2012 and several made an immediate impact: offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., and linebacker Antonio Morrison were Freshmen All-SEC. Others, however, didn’t get a single snap of playing time.
Here’s how we see the rest of the class shaping up:
Top of the class
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Ranking UF’s needs for 2014
1. Offensive line
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Just two hours after Dan Quinn was named the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, Muschamp promoted D.J. Durkin to replace Quinn.
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Durkin is headed for a coordinator’s job, and there are plenty of jobs available across the country. What if Durkin were to leave Florida? What kind of impact would that have on the Gators’ recruiting?
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UF coach Will Muschamp said Friday that senior defensive tackle Nick Alajajian suffered a fractured right knee and will miss the 2012 season and redshirt junior defensive end Kedric Johnson suffered a dislocated left knee and will miss a significant period of time. Both players were involved in special teams and haven't made any impact on defense, but losing those two does hurt the Gators in terms of veteran depth.
Alajajian (6-foot-4, 285 pounds) was a reserve offensive lineman for his first three seasons but was moved to defensive tackle in the spring. Johnson has just nine tackles and one sack in 25 career games.
The starters: SLB Michael Taylor (RSo.) OR Antonio Morrison (Fr.), MLB Jonathan Bostic (Sr.), WLB Jelani Jenkins (RJr.)
The backups: Lerentee McCray (RSr.), Darrin Kitchens (Jr.), Neiron Ball (RSo.), Jeremi Powell (Fr.), Gideon Ajagbe (RSo.), Kedric Johnson (RJr.), Alex McCalister (Fr.), Bryan Cox, Jr. (Fr.)
Comment: Bostic and Jenkins are stalwarts who are tackling machines. UF coach Will Muschamp, however, challenged them in the spring to start making more big plays. That’s directly related to Jenkins dropping six interceptions last season. Taylor is a versatile player who can play all three spots and Morrison was an early enrollee who drew praise for his physical play. If or when DE/LB Ronald Powell returns from his ACL tear this season, McCray will move back to strongside linebacker.
The starters: DE/LB Lerentee McCray (RSr.), DT Dominique Easley (Jr.), DT Omar Hunter (RSr.), DE Sharrif Floyd (Jr.)
The backups: DE/LB Dante Fowler, Jr. (Fr.), DE/LB Gideon Ajagbe (RSo.), DE/LB Kedric Johnson (RJr.), DE/LB Alex McCalister (Fr.), DE/LB Bryan Cox, Jr. (Fr.), DT Leon Orr (RSo.), DT Damien Jacobs (Jr.), DT Dante Phillips (Fr.), NT Nick Alajajian (Sr.), DT Quinteze Williams (Fr.), DT Jafar Mann (Fr.), DE Jonathan Bullard (Fr.)
Comment: The line would be much better with DE/LB Ronald Powell, who is out for at least part of the season with a torn ACL. There is a lot of depth, which is in contrast to last season. Easley and Floyd have All-SEC potential, and the hope is some of the freshmen will develop enough to allow the Gators to slide Floyd inside to tackle, which is his more natural position. McCray was having a solid season last year until a shoulder injury caused him to miss four of the final five games. Fowler and Cox could see a lot of time at DE/LB (which UF calls the buck) early in practice to see if they can handle the spot.
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