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September 25, 2013

No. 20 Florida relying on stout defense again

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley wore a red sweat shirt with a gold football helmet on the front and the word “BEST” underneath it on campus Tuesday.

Easley bought it in Miami because he liked the colors.

It seemed somewhat appropriate to throw on this week. The 20th-ranked Gators lead the Southeastern Conference in just about every major defensive category. Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) tops the league in scoring (14.7 points a game), rushing (55.3 yards a game) and passing (157 yards a game).

Coach Will Muschamp’s unit didn’t allow Toledo, No. 15 Miami or Tennessee to gain more than 220 yards and has been at its best on third down (19 percent).

Now, with quarterback Jeff Driskel out for the season with a broken right leg, the Gators might rely on the defense more than ever before.

“We’re not afraid to punt the ball,” offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Tuesday, summing up the state of the team.

The defense has played well enough for Florida to be unbeaten. The Gators held the Hurricanes to 212 yards, including 76 over the final 11 possessions, but lost 21-16 thanks to five turnovers.

Nonetheless, the Gators believe they can play better. They want perfection, which they define as a shutout and three turnovers. They haven’t witnessed it in more than a year — a lengthy wait they would like to see end Saturday at Kentucky (1-2).

“Those guys have got to continue to play well,” Muschamp said. “You’re only as good as your next game. That’s our mentality and we’ve got to understand that whatever we’ve done to this point really doesn’t matter.”

The Gators rank second in the nation in total defense, up three spots from where they finished last season.

It’s been somewhat surprising considering Florida lost seven defensive starters after 2012. But the team has experienced little, if any, growing pains while replacing defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter and Lerentee McCray, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans.

Muschamp expressed concern before the season about how stout the defense would be up the middle.

But Easley has wreaked havoc on offensive lines. Middle linebacker Antonio Morrison has emerged as the team’s top tackler despite being suspended for the season opener. And former cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins have played well at safety.

Several youngsters have made significant impacts, too.

Sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler was named the SEC defensive player of the week after recording three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a sack against Tennessee. And freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III intercepted two passes in his first two games and broke up three more against the Volunteers.

“We know we can do better,” Fowler said. “We take defense really seriously especially after the year that we had last year. I know a lot of people had some doubts going into this year, so we wanted to play even harder and be better than last year. We wanted to be the best defense in the nation.”

So far, the Gators are getting rave reviews.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Florida’s defensive front “dominated the line of scrimmage” in Saturday’s 31-17 loss in Gainesville and added that the Gators have “one of the best defensive fronts in the country.”

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops was equally impressed.

“They’re very disruptive, very dominant up front, and their secondary is fabulous,” said Stoops, who got an up-close look at the Gators as Florida State’s defensive coordinator the last three years. “They cover the heck out of you.”

Florida’s last “perfect game” on defense was a 38-0 shutout against the Wildcats last season.

The Gators have come close to repeating the feat a few times since. But no matter how well they play on defense, Muschamp never seems satisfied.

“That’s a good thing,” Easley said. “Basically, you can’t be happy with something that you know you’re supposed to do. I mean, you can be happy, but you should expect more from yourself.”


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