Florida Gators: Antonio Morrison

Florida's two-deep: Linebacker

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
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Editor’s note: We’re breaking down the Gators’ two-deep depth chart every day for the next two weeks. We’ll cover every position and offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

LINEBACKER

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSenior middle linebacker Michael Taylor is the leader of the defense.
The starters: Senior strongside linebacker Neiron Ball, junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and sophomore weakside linebacker Jarrad Davis

The backups: Sophomore strongside linebacker Alex Anzalone, senior middle linebacker Michael Taylor and sophomore weakside linebacker Daniel McMillian

The rest: Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin and sophomore Jeremi Powell

The lowdown: The complexity of Florida's multiple-front defense is most evident at the linebacker positions. The strongside or SAM linebacker is often disguised in rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, but it's the mirror-image middle (MIKE) linebackers and weakside (WILL) linebackers who typically play all three downs. Naturally, the Gators are strongest at the MIKE and WILL positions, where Morrison, Davis and Taylor give them three reliable options. Taylor is the veteran leader of the linebackers and he doesn't mind coming off the bench because he knows he'll play a lot of snaps. Davis pushed his way into the starting lineup by the end of his freshman season and carried that momentum into the spring, consistently earning praise for how quickly and how well he responded to coaching. Morrison is a bit of a question mark. Outstanding as a true freshman, he struggled in his sophomore season with two summertime arrests and a decline in production on the field. Florida has high hopes for its backups, three of whom came from a highly touted Class of 2013. Anzalone and Rolin were ticketed for significant playing time as true freshmen, but injuries hampered both. McMillian played mostly on special teams but started to show a better grasp of the defense this spring.

The future: With two seniors set to depart after the 2014 season, Florida doesn't have overwhelming numbers at its three linebacker positions, but coach Will Muschamp does not appear concerned as his defense has evolved into one that plays more nickel packages to combat the proliferation of spread offenses in the SEC. Davis has the look of a rising star. Further down the depth chart are talented players who must overcome injuries. Anzalone had surgery last spring on a torn labrum in his shoulder and dislocated the shoulder late in the 2013 season. Rolin had surgery on a torn ACL twice in his first year. Powell, a special teams ace, tore his ACL midway through last season. All three missed spring practice and are expected to be at full strength by fall camp. On the horizon, Florida needs to sign two or three linebackers in its 2015 class. The top names on UF's list are ESPN 300 prospects Jeffery Holland, Roquan Smith and Te'Von Coney. Another ESPN 300 athlete, Adonis Thomas, is being recruited as a buck linebacker, which is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position. But like Florida 2014 signee Justus Reed, Thomas has the athleticism to play strongside linebacker if he doesn't add the bulk to play on the line.

Replacing the Gators: Defense

May, 13, 2014
May 13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is over, so it's time to talk about the next wave of Gators.

Florida only had four players selected last weekend, but three were from the defensive side of the ball.

Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on defense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

DT Dominique Easley
First-round pick, New England Patriots
Florida already has experience in dealing with the loss of Easley, who tore his ACL in practice after Week 3 and left a huge void in the defense for the rest of the season. Easley was a heart-and-soul leader with a relentless motor and a lightning-quick first step, attributes that are in rare supply in college football. Leadership and passion aside, finding a defensive tackle who can disrupt the running and passing game is a huge task. Florida will turn to Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, two seniors who are solid starters but have yet to make a consistent impact. Much of Orr's production in 2013 came after Easley's injury, and he does have good tools to work with at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds. Cummings looked quicker, more confident and more disruptive in spring practice. However, the Gators ultimately might need one of their talented freshmen to emerge and bump one of those seniors to a backup role.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrian Poole has played cornerback, nickel corner and safety for Florida.
DB Jaylen Watkins
Fourth-round pick, Philadelphia Eagles
Another Gator who will be hard to replace, Watkins was a steady performer at cornerback, nickel corner and safety in his last couple of seasons. Florida is counting on some of its young defensive backs to give them that same kind of versatility. Heading into his junior season, Brian Poole has played all three of those positions but didn't grab a hold of the starting cornerback job that was available in spring practice. He could end up back at nickelback, where he made the first six starts of his career last season. At safety, Florida has steady senior Jabari Gorman and a host of talented youngsters. Sophomore Marcus Maye could get first crack based on the experience he gained last year in 12 games and two starts. Coaches are also very high on sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.

LB Ronald Powell
Fifth-round pick, New Orleans Saints
Powell, who played a mix of buck linebacker and strongside linebacker in his final season, brought some pass rush off the edge and flashed the ability to play in space. Dante Fowler Jr. took over at the buck position last season and eventually pushed Powell to outside linebacker. Fowler has the pass-rushing potential to give the Gators a big upgrade. At the SAM linebacker spot, Florida has senior Neiron Ball, who at 6-3, 235 has a similar build to Powell. Ball is more fluid in coverage but needs to be more consistent in stopping the run and rushing the passer.

CB Marcus Roberson
Undrafted free agent, St. Louis Rams
The Gators employ more man coverage than most college defenses, and as a result they attract some terrific prospects. Roberson was one such player, who used his instincts to thrive in one-on-one battles. With two junior cornerbacks forgoing their senior seasons at UF, the numbers are now thin, but coaches can rely on star sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III to lead the secondary. There is also plenty of enthusiasm for Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, two freshmen who enrolled in January. They competed throughout spring practice, showing plenty of skill and the ability to learn on the fly. At 6-1, 188, Tabor is effective in using his long arms to blanket receivers. Dawson, at 5-11, 190, is just as good in coverage but plays a more physical style.

CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
One of the best athletes on Florida's recent rosters, Purifoy made an impact at cornerback, as an elite-level gunner on special teams and even in limited time at wide receiver. Aside from Tabor and Dawson, Florida coaches are also very high on true freshman J.C. Jackson, who will enroll in June. Jackson is an explosive offensive talent, but his future could very well be at cornerback where he'll start his college career. Jackson could also make an impact right away as a kick returner.

LB Darrin Kitchens
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Kitchens was a valuable reserve linebacker, who was fundamentally sound and solid against the run. Florida appears set on its first unit with Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Senior Michael Taylor will also get plenty of playing time. Behind those three, Florida is hoping its young talent will emerge in 2014. Sophomore Daniel McMillian showed improvement throughout spring practice. The Gators also could get a lift from two bigger linebackers in Alex Anzalone (6-3, 239) and Matt Rolin (6-4, 227), each of whom missed the spring with injuries but are expected to push for playing time this fall.

DT Damien Jacobs
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Another solid backup, Jacobs stepped up after Easley's injury and was a solid run-stuffer. Florida has three young linemen it is counting on in 2014 to become a part of the rotation at tackle -- sophomore Joey Ivie and redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick. Coaches are confident in all three when it comes to ability but are looking for more maturity and consistent effort. Three more exciting freshmen prospects -- Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark -- arrive in the summer, and Florida won't hesitate to burn a redshirt if any of them prove he is ready to contribute right away.

Florida spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida Gators:

1. Florida's offense is already better than it was at any time last season. That's a low bar to clear, but new coordinator Kurt Roper made coach Will Muschamp happy by designing a run-heavy offense that can spread out opponents and get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space.

2. The defense has work to do. There are two rising stars in CB Vernon Hargreaves III and DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr. There are solid veterans at key positions such as S Jabari Gorman, DL Jonathan Bullard, and LBs Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor. The rest of the D is loaded with inexperienced talent.

3. After a 4-8 season in 2013, this is a team with a lot to prove. Everywhere you look there are chips on shoulders. The entire offense is determined to carry its weight, especially QB Jeff Driskel and the receivers. The kickers are looking to bounce back. No one wants to repeat the pain of last season.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will Driskel finally break through? The Gators don't need brilliance from their quarterback in order to have a decent offense. But he must improve his accuracy, pocket awareness and ability to read defenses. Roper has built his scheme around Driskel's strengths, so look for lots of running and quick passing.

2. Will a true freshman start at cornerback opposite Hargreaves? It's looking that way for a program that has had a lot of similar success stories with Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Hargreaves. Next up are Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, who didn't look out of place in spring ball.

3. Who are the playmakers on offense? Roper's scheme promised a clean slate and a lot of opportunities, as he typically uses a lot of players. Florida's most reliable options are RBs Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown. At receiver, there's Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. The rest still have much to prove.

One way-too-early prediction:

Florida will pass the eye test with fans by producing more offense and fewer cringe-worthy moments. But the schedule will prove difficult to navigate, and Gators fans will continue their debate over Muschamp's status throughout the season. Eight wins signals progress to many, while four losses stokes the flames of others.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
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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.
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."

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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Schedule: The Gators' first spring practice is Wednesday. It's open to the public and free, along with seven other practice sessions. Spring football concludes Saturday, April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut, which starts at 1:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida pushed back the start of spring practice to ensure that previously injured players such as Jeff Driskel could participate.
On the mend: Florida pushed back the start of spring football by about 7-10 days in order to insure the full participation of several players who were injured last fall. Most notable among them are QB Jeff Driskel (broken leg), LBs Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), and O-linemen Tyler Moore (broken elbow) and Chaz Green (torn labrum). Still, the Gators will be without nine players this spring, including two former starters -- RB Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and DT Leon Orr (broken wrist).

On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.

New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.

Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.

Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.

Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.

Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.

Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.

All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's no coincidence that Florida's vaunted defense slipped last season after the departure of several 2012 mainstays. Upperclassmen such as middle linebacker Jon Bostic, tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were that team's best leaders.

Florida coaches expected to ride out the leadership void because the team's heart and soul -- defensive tackle Dominique Easley -- returned with his unique and magnetic blend of intensity, silliness and determination.

Then Easley tore his ACL after the third game, and suddenly there was deafening silence.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFlorida hopes Antonio Morrison is over his sophomore troubles and is ready to become a leader.
The end of Bostic's college career was also an underrated factor in terms of Florida's lack of vocal leadership. The Gators had cultivated a pipeline of highly successful middle linebackers dating back from Channing Crowder in 2003 to Brandon Siler, Brandon Spikes and then Bostic.

The torch was supposed to be passed in 2013 to sophomore Antonio Morrison, who had already signaled his arrival with a big splash late in his freshman season. But Morrison's follow-up was full of turmoil. He was arrested twice last offseason and suspended before his on-field performance took a surprising turn for the worse. His season ended, like so many others, with a serious injury -- torn cartilage in his knee.

Instead of having a rising star at a crucial position in Morrison, the Gators were left with questions for the future. Can Morrison regain the trust of his coaches and teammates? Will he return to being a reliable tackler and playmaker?

That's what it will take for Morrison to become a leader on what is expected to be one of the SEC's best defenses.

It's easy to predict that he will, because Muschamp has witnessed Morrison's work ethic so far this offseason. The coach was quick to praise Morrison and has also seen fellow linebackers Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis emerge as leaders.

"I think Antonio speaks more with his work habits and how he works in the weight room and how he works in practice," Muschamp said. "He's an intense player. I think he speaks volumes, like Jarrad Davis does, like Mike Taylor does. Those guys work hard. Those guys have a good work ethic.

"Those guys realize we need to be more productive at the position than we were a year ago. But [with Morrison] I've seen a guy that's, again, you get humbled, you get knocked down like we were last season, you just shut up and go to work."

In defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, Muschamp recognized an opportunity to challenge two of his best linemen to embrace leadership.

"[They] have taken a little step forward as far those things are concerned and understanding it's time to step into their role," Muschamp said. "I sat both of those guys down when they came in [at the start of this offseason] and talked to them about Sharrif and Dominique: 'Listen, those guys kind of groomed you when you came in. Now it's your job to do that.' That's kind of what we need to start doing now, understanding what it takes."

In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III certainly understands what it takes. Muschamp calls him "a great leader," and it's easy to see why. Hargreaves not only excelled on the field as a true freshman in 2013, but off the field he's charismatic, well-spoken and popular.


Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring is the season of growth, renewal and rebirth. Sounds like a good wish list for the Florida Gators, who are just days away from starting spring practice.

Coming off a surprising 4-8 season that ended with three coaches and a couple dozen players departing, UF is turning the page and looking forward to the clean slate that comes with a new season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxAfter a 4-8 record in 2013, Florida desperately needs quarterback Jeff Driskel to return strong from injury and set the tone this spring.
But that page won't turn itself.

This is a program that has been thoroughly humbled, and it needs a completely new approach in 2014.

The Gators have had some lows over the past four seasons with a 30-21 combined record, but they reached new levels of misery last year. The injuries piled up and the losses followed suit. It got so bad late in the season that it appeared some players were mailing in the season.

On more than one occasion last year, head coach Will Muschamp said, "If we keep doing the same things, we'll get the same results." He's expecting the results to be different in 2014, with the biggest change being a new offense led by former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper that features a faster tempo and some spread elements.

Roper and some new schemes ought to breathe life into a moribund offense and bring out the best in several talented players who were underutilized in recent years. But the problems at Florida run deeper.

Muschamp complained openly about his team's "woe-is-me mentality" and how it would snowball when things went wrong in games. That was a leadership problem.

A lot of players addressed the media with slumped shoulders and looks of resignation and confusion. There were few answers for how a team with the talent to win 11 games in 2012 could fall so far in one year.

But some players spoke defiantly, insisting Florida will bounce back in 2014. They made mental notes of all the embarrassments suffered last season and are coming back with something to prove.

These are Florida's leaders now -- upperclassmen like Max Garcia, Jonathan Bullard, Quinton Dunbar and Dante Fowler Jr. Along with the coaching staff, they have to push their teammates and use the painful memories of last season to forge something stronger.

It starts with belief.

This will be one of the most important spring practice sessions at Florida in the last decade, and fans can expect to see a level of urgency unlike anything they can remember.

The Gators will have a very young roster again, so it's critical to find new leaders this spring. There are just 16 seniors and 13 juniors on scholarship, tiny numbers considering the 53 underclassmen who are expected to be on the final roster this fall.

It happens every year. Whenever one senior class leaves, there is a void that must be filled. But this spring is different. This is a team that desperately needs strong, respected voices.

Florida appears to be in good shape on defense with vocal leaders like Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves III playing at a high level. It would also be a big help if middle linebacker Antonio Morrison returns to the level of play he showed as a true freshman starter. Morrison wanted badly to be a leader last season, and the team needed his voice, but two offseason arrests and a decline in play hurt him in that department. If Morrison cannot deliver this year, senior Michael Taylor will be waiting to take over at middle linebacker and will be needed as that vocal leader the defense can rely upon.

Offense, as always, revolves around the quarterback. Sure, it would really help the Gators if Dunbar takes the young receiving corps under his wing and holds his teammates accountable. And Florida could use a leader in a crowded backfield that features sophomore Kelvin Taylor.

But really, it's all about the quarterback.

Muschamp has a lot of faith in starter Jeff Driskel and has seen the fourth-year junior grow as a leader. But the challenge facing these Gators is greater than what these players have seen before.

Driskel has to set the tone this spring. More than any other player, he needs to show an understanding of Roper's offense and be responsible for the progress his teammates make in these 15 critical practice sessions. He must speak up and show everyone that this is his team.

One voice from one primary leader can work wonders, especially on a young team. The prediction here is that Driskel will not shy away from that spotlight.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

This weeklong series continues with a look at the linebackers. We'll skip the hybrid buck position because no one is likely to challenge budding star Dante Fowler Jr.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison hopes to rebound after a long season.
Returning starters: Some very talented youngsters are starting to come on strong, so this is a big spring for Florida's veteran linebackers. Junior Antonio Morrison looks to bounce back from what was clearly a terrible 2013. On the verge of becoming a team leader, he was arrested twice last summer and then didn't play his best before missing the final three games of the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Senior Michael Taylor started all but two games and led the Gators in tackles. Senior Neiron Ball started seven games at strong-side linebacker.

Departures: Florida graduated senior Darrin Kitchens, a solid reserve who made three starts in 2013. Fourth-year junior Ronald Powell declared for the NFL draft. He bounced between buck linebacker and strong-side linebacker last season, never truly settling in as the dominant force he was projected to be coming out of high school.

Returning reserves: With his athleticism and ability to soak up coaching, Jarrad Davis made a big impression as a freshman. The three-star prospect came in as the least-heralded member of Florida's fine four-man class of linebackers in 2013 and became the only one to start a game last season. Two of those highly touted freshmen, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, played on special teams and saw the field sparingly. Anzalone will miss the spring with a shoulder injury. Also sitting out will be third-year sophomore Jeremi Powell, who made a splash in 2013 as a freshman special-teams ace before tearing his ACL midway through the season.

Newcomers: Florida didn't sign any linebackers in its 2014 class and there's only one LB on the roster whom fans have not seen in action yet. They'll have to wait some more, as redshirt freshman Matt Rolin won’t be ready to play until fall practice. The No. 5 OLB prospect in 2013 tore his ACL in camp last fall and missed the season. It was the same ACL he tore in high school, so the Gators are taking it slow with his rehab. Before getting hurt, Rolin made a strong impression on the Florida coaching staff, which was prepared to use him as a situational pass-rusher, backup strong-side linebacker and on special teams.

What to watch: In Anzalone, Rolin and Powell, Florida has three talented underclassmen out for the spring. Head coach Will Muschamp said he's not overly concerned about the number of bodies, however, because the Gators play so much nickel and dime defense. Still, Florida will ask a lot of its linebackers this spring. Morrison had a dynamite freshman year and then slumped badly as a sophomore. He'll look to bounce back and convince his teammates he is worthy of a leadership role. Morrison and Taylor will continue to battle for the starting inside linebacker job. Whoever shifts to weak-side linebacker will have to deal with the hard-charging Davis, who is looking to seize the starting job. On the other side, Ball has the size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and experience (36 career games) to lock up the starting job, but McMillian has a lot to prove as well. He was one of the top prospects in the nation before starting slowly with UF as a freshman. His talent is undeniable, though, and his learning curve could be steep.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

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.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like the little black lovebugs that swarm these parts twice a year only to splatter across windshields like a plague, the Florida Gators' injury bug in 2013 was a nuisance. Then it reached epic proportions. Here's a complete breakdown:

August

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel's season ended in the third game, when he broke his leg vs. Tennessee.
Injuries: Junior QB Jeff Driskel (appendectomy), sophomore RB Matt Jones (viral infection), senior WR Andre Debose (torn ACL), freshman LB Matt Rolin (torn ACL), junior OT Chaz Green (torn labrum)
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.

September

Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."

October

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesMatt Jones was Florida's leading rusher when he was lost for the season in the LSU game.
Injuries: Jones (torn meniscus), Murphy (sprained shoulder), senior DT Damien Jacobs (concussion), junior LB Ronald Powell (ankle), senior LB Darrin Kitchens (shoulder), redshirt freshman LB Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), sophomore LT D.J. Humphries (sprained MCL)
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.

November

Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.

Conclusions

It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.

The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.

"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."

Real painful.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here's what we learned about the Gators after their 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern on Saturday:

1. Florida needs Tyler Murphy back: All week the Florida coaching staff expressed its confidence in third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg by saying he was ready to use more of the playbook in his next start. And sure enough he threw a pass on the third play of the game, which was a sharp contrast from the previous week, when Mornhinweg threw just two passes in the first half. But any hopes for an expanded offense went out the window at the end of the Gators' first possession after Mornhinweg threw two bad passes into the end zone that should have been intercepted. Mornhinweg was 4-of-10 passing for 6 yards in the first half and 6-of-13 for 14 yards after three quarters. Perhaps a bright spot was his fourth-quarter performance, when he completed 8-of-12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. After the game, UF coach Will Muschamp said he would not rule out Murphy for next week's game against No. 2 FSU.

2. Clutch defense has disappeared: During its 11-1 season in 2012, Florida displayed a knack for making halftime adjustments and shutting down its opponents. That certainly hasn't happened this season, as the Gators have bent and broken lately when the team needs its defense the most. After Saturday's loss, Muschamp seemed to indicate that the offense's inability to score is at least partially to blame. Florida gave up 429 yards on the ground but was unable to score enough points to force Georgia Southern out of its basic scheme. "We got gapped out in some situations. But you've also got to change the scoreboard offensively," he said. "You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively. It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed."

3. The injury bug: None of the UF players or coaches want to use the rash of injuries this season as an excuse. It's just something they all mention every time they're asked about what's gone wrong this fall. Saturday was another example of just how snakebitten the Gators have been with injuries. Already missing starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (out for the season after knee surgery), the Gators lost backup Michael Taylor to a knee injury in the second quarter. Taylor had been playing well, too, snagging his team-leading third fumble recovery of the season. But then it got ridiculous, as Taylor's backup, true freshman Alex Anzalone, dislocated his shoulder. Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens also missed time with a shoulder injury. And at one point, the Gators were using a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster in David Campbell to help defend a triple-option offense that was hitting on all cylinders. Talk about ouch.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.

The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.

And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.

Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?

A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.

"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsGators coach Will Muschamp was at a loss to explain the latest in a long string of disappointments.
As usual, the primary culprit was an inept offense that came into the game ranked No. 111 out of 123 FBS teams in total offense and generated 279 yards (4.5 yards per play).

"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...

"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”

On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.

Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).

Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.

"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."

It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.

Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.

But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.

"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."

The same cannot be said of Florida.

The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.

"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."

Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.

"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."

Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.

Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.

"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.

"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."

Planning for success: Florida

November, 21, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No Florida team since 1979's winless bunch has needed a win as badly as these Gators. Coming off a five-game losing streak, Florida (4-6) returns to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday to play host to Georgia Southern (6-4).

Just how desperate are the Gators?

"About as desperate as I am [to stop] hearing about it," said middle linebacker Michael Taylor. "You get tired of losing. You come to a place like Florida, you’re not accustomed to it. You’re not used to losing five games. It definitely wasn’t in the plans. Players, coaches, we’re all disappointed. It’s like it’s all sliding downhill. But one thing we do have is two games left on the calendar. Those are two games we’re going to go out and focus on."

[+] EnlargeWIll Muschamp
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIt's been a struggle lately, but Will Muschamp and the Gators are determined to finish strong.
Before anyone thinks this facing an FCS foe is going to be easy, consider that the Eagles run the triple-option offense, which is known to confound even the stingiest of defenses.

"It's all about eyes and execution offensively, taking care of your responsibility on every snap," Florida coach Will Muschamp said on Monday. "They run a classic triple-option, a dive-option with a lot of different looks that they're going to give us, and they do a nice job of executing those things. It's all responsibility football. It's an over-and-under defense. ….

"We're getting ready for an offense that's so different from what we've seen in three years. Obviously we spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing and looking at different teams and how they handled this because it's so different from what we've faced."

To make matters worse, the Gators recently lost leading tackler and starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. With Taylor sliding over to fill in at middle linebacker, true freshman Jarrad Davis made his first career start last week at South Carolina and earned good reviews.

"I thought Jarrad played really well," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said on Wednesday. "He played fast. The game wasn't too big for him. He was ready. Obviously it was his first start and it so happened to be on his birthday, so he was kind of amped up before the game. He responded well, played really well."

The Gators will need that kind of effort to break their losing streak.

Georgia Southern has never defeated an FBS opponent in 20 contests. The Eagles, who are moving to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference next season, ought to be fired up for their last chance to make history.

The Gators, meanwhile, have desperation on their side.

"I mean, if you don’t come out prepared and ready to play you can lose to anybody," Taylor said. "We lost to Vanderbilt. We hadn’t lost to Vanderbilt in 20-something years. So, any team is capable of losing on any day. I know this team put up [341] yards on Alabama [two years ago], so this is no team to push aside. This is a team to be prepared for."

Gators trying to fix leaky run defense

November, 15, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On what must be a lengthy list of disappointments this season, Florida coach Will Muschamp counts his run defense among the most confounding.

Perhaps this was to be expected because Florida lost seven starters from last year's defense, which ranked fourth in the nation against the run. Defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter; the entire linebacker unit of Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray; safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- all were solid run-stoppers who played up the middle.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Durkin, Will Muschamp, Travaris Robinson
AP Photo/John RaouxDefensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, head coach Will Muschamp and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson watch during Florida's game against Georgia on Nov. 2. Florida's rushing defense has struggled late in games.
"I think I felt really good going into the season with where we were," Muschamp said earlier this week. "Certainly, we've not had the results we wanted to consistently through the year and that's been frustrating."

The numbers tell an incomplete story, as Florida ranks No. 15 in the nation in run defense, giving up 109.7 yards a game. But Muschamp is ever the perfectionist when it comes to his defense, and lately it hasn't done a good job of stopping the run when it matters the most.

"I think that just playing blocks up front, we’ve been inconsistent and inconsistent across the board," he said. "We’ve done some nice things at times, but not enough to be able to stop the run consistently, especially when we’ve needed to in critical situations."

The lack of clutch stops has become obvious during the Gators' four-game losing streak. In a critical loss to Missouri, after Florida's offense scored a TD late in the third quarter to claw back to within six points, the UF run defense gave momentum right back. Missouri rushed for 59 yards, including a 50-yard run by Henry Josey, to set up a field goal and ice the game.

In the next game in Jacksonville, Florida allowed Georgia's Todd Gurley to salt away the clock with 19 of his 100 yards on a fourth-quarter drive. And in last week's 34-17 home loss to Vanderbilt, the Commodores completed just six passes en route to scoring 34 points.

This week, the challenge of fixing the run defense became tougher when Muschamp announced starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison is out for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Morrison led the Gators with 56 tackles.

But the leaky run defense might be more precisely be traced to the season-ending injury of senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley. He was perhaps the Gators' best overall player, an emotional focal point who led the team off the field and was a wrecking ball on it.

Florida's defense allowed 55.3 rushing yards per game in the first three games of the season. Since Easley's injury, the Gators have allowed 136.8 per game.

"I said it when it happened, you don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team. So it's tough. But we certainly have capable players to come out and play well, and play better than we've played in some situations. And I think you don't put your finger on one thing and say it's because of this. It's the cumulative effect of different things that have occurred, and you've just got to overcome it."

UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin agreed, saying the problem is less about personnel or physicality than it is a mindset the remaining players need to cultivate.

"We've played good at times with the guys we have," he said. "We can't allow things to affect us, whether it's a guy being out, whether it's we're back on the field because of a sudden-change situation. None of that should affect how we play, and at times I feel like it has. That's the learning process we need to take from all this. We need to play our style the way we play defensively at all times regardless of what the situation is. So, it's a continuing learning process."

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