The injury bug has been all over in North Central Florida this year.
Before the season even started, Florida wide receiver Andre Debose was lost for the season with an ACL tear and offensive lineman Chaz Green tore his labrum. In Saturday's win over Tennessee, starting quarterback Jeff Driskel broke his leg and is also lost for the year.
During Tuesday's practice, more bad news hit Gainesville.
Senior defensive lineman Dominique Easley—one of the leaders of that dominant Gator defense—tore his right ACL and medial meniscus in a non-contact drill, according to GatorZone.com's Scott Carter. Easley tore his left ACL in the 2011 regular season finale against Florida State.
“I talked to Dominique and the team this afternoon and we will continue to look for his leadership and experience throughout the season," head coach Will Muschamp said. "Watching any of your players go through this is one of the hardest things about being a coach."
Easley was not only one of the leaders of that defense, but he was a superstar. A member of the preseason first-team All-SEC team, he had two tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries in the Gators' first three games of the season. But more important for Florida, Easley was one of several Gator defenders who routinely disrupted plays in the backfield—an attribute that doesn't come through on the stat sheet.
Much like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Easley was the one player on Florida's defensive roster to draw the attention of opposing offensive coordinators. His quickness off the ball necessitated a double-team on virtually every play, which is a big reason guys like Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard have been so successful this season.
Will his absence hurt Florida's defense?
Anytime a team loses a superstar, there's going to be an adjustment period.
But Florida's defense is elite for two reasons: top-end talent and remarkable depth.
Junior Darious Cummings transferred from junior college last year and is still relatively raw. He had an interception versus Tennessee and will likely step in and become a starter. Senior Damien Jacobs is backing up Leon Orr at nose guard and could slide over as well. But Muschamp may need him to spell Orr, who's been fighting through a shoulder injury.
The recurring theme is, despite the relative inexperience of Easley's possible replacements, they all still have talent. Cummings and Jacobs were both 4-star prospects by out of East Mississippi Community College in 2013 and 2012, respectively.
Easley's replacements won't be able to replicate his success, which will put more pressure on the entrenched starters around them—and that's okay.
Fowler has thrived at the defensive end spot with eight tackles, four for loss, one sack and two forced fumbles. If the attention shifts to him, all that does is give defensive end Jonathan Bullard and linebacker Ronald Powell more opportunities to wreak havoc.
Florida is simply loaded in the front seven and is led by a head coach who made a name for himself by consistently producing top-tier defenses. Over the last seven years, a Muschamp-led defense has finished outside of the top 20 nationally in total defense only once and finished in the top 10 five times.
That's remarkable given the roster turnover associated with college football and evolution of college offenses over the same time periods.
The loss of Easley hurts, but these Gators can overcome it. They have the talent, the scheme and the coaching staff that has proven time and time again to produce elite defenses, and the depth to repeat the feat is there in Gainesville.