SWAMP ALERT: Young, Inexperienced Gator Defense

Ben BussardCorrespondent ISeptember 13, 2007

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This is the first installment of a weekly article that will delve into one significant problem that the Florida Gator football team is either going to face in their upcoming game or a disturbing look at mishaps from the week before. The focus of this inaugural SWAMP ALERT entry concerns the play of the Gator defense so far this season. There is no doubt that the 2006 version of the Florida Gator defense was the crutch that Chris Leak and a habitually sporadic offense leaned on, but thanks to the NFL Draft and graduation, the Gators lost 9 defensive starters from last year’s lineup; including All-American safety Reggie Nelson and a whole host of other three or four year starters. Needless to say, some serious defensive reconstruction needed to take place over the off-season through recruiting and personnel changes. Urban Meyer’s staff put together their second consecutive top recruiting class in 2006 and brought in numerous defensive five-star athletes from around the southeast, but how soon can Gator fans expect these young and talented athletes to gel as a unit? How soon will we see the likes of Torrey Davis, Carlos Dunlap, and Jermaine Cunningham chasing down quarterbacks in the SEC? When will true freshmen Joe Haden and Major Wright be able to solidify a weak Florida secondary? These questions will undoubtedly be answered throughout the course of this season, but don’t expect to see a defense that even appears to resemble the same one we saw back in January in the National Championship Game flying around the field tackling Buckeyes like there’s no tomorrow. Co-defensive coordinators, Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison, will have their hands full this season with a much different task than the one that faced them last season. The 2007 Florida Gator defense may eventually be even more ferocious than the recently departed unit, but not until next season at the earliest. Returning defensive starts Tony Joiner and Derrick Harvey will be in charge of overcoming the youth and inexperience that surrounds them on every snap.

Now that I’ve sufficiently prepared the Gator Nation for a season filled with missed assignments and blown coverages, we can focus on the logistics of this potentially disappointing defensive unit. Disregarding week one against Western Kentucky, we’ll focus on the Gators week two matchup against Troy. It’s important to note that this Troy team did win the prestigious New Orleans Bowl in 2006 and is the alma mater to Dallas Cowboy linebacker DeMarcus Ware. With that being said, it still is Troy University, a school that has only been in Division I-A (or Football Bowl Subdivision or whatever you want to call it) for six full seasons and this is the Swamp, a place where opposing teams are supposed to be overwhelmed and lose focus. Apparently the Troy Trojans didn’t get that memo because this past Saturday they came into Gainesville and hung 31 points on the board, further solidifying my claim that this could be a very long season for the Gator D. The Trojans passed for 283 yards on 29 completed passes from quarterback Omar Haugabook and scored four offensive touchdowns. It was by far the worst drubbing that a Gator team has endured under head coach Urban Meyer since the debacle in Tuscaloosa in 2005. The Gators were outscored 17-0 in the third quarter and looked confused on the defensive side of the ball. Some of Florida’s defensive ineptitude may be due to the wishbone-like attack that the Trojans ran throughout the majority of the game. Not to mention that Haugabook was elusive enough to get out of numerous sack opportunities and was able to scramble for two rushing touchdowns. On the bright side, Florida’s special teams unit blocked two punts and true freshman Justin Trattou had the game’s only interception while senior defensive tackle Clint McMillan forced Troy’s only lost fumble. Furthermore, the Gators defensive line and linebackers were stingy all day long and only allowed 53 net rushing yards.

Overall, the Gator defense has enough individual raw talent to overcome their inexperience this season, especially on the defensive line. However, it is the defensive secondary that was most disturbing on Saturday evening. Troy receivers were able to find pockets of space in between true freshman Joe Haden and an uncomfortable Wondy Pierre-Louis. With Tennessee venturing into the swamp this weekend, it is vital for the defense to take a big step up because the SEC season has officially begun and opposing teams will be able to exploit the young Gator defense even more deliberately than Troy did this past Saturday. Florida’s only saving grace is that the bulk of their most difficult opponents will have to visit the Swamp this season including this weekend against the Vols, the Auburn Tigers, and the Criminoles of FSU. However, don’t be surprised if Matt Flynn and the Bayou Bengals hang 40+ against this defense down in Baton Rouge or if whoever that coach is at South Carolina has a few tricks up his sleeve come November. The Gators offense will have to simply outscore both LSU and South Carolina if they want any chance of winning either of these SEC road games because the Gator D is not road tested and will struggle mightily every time they play outside the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Once again, don’t let my criticism and skepticism of this year’s defense lead you to believe that there is no eventual hope for this particular unit because there is no doubt that this defense has the opportunity to become one of the country’s best. In order for this potential to be realized, the underclassmen will have to mature at a rapid rate and seniors Tony Joiner, Kyle Jackson, and Clint McMillan along with All-American defensive end Derrick Harvey will have to play up to their expected potential and provide the rest of the youngsters with a sense of dependency. Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison have the puzzle pieces in their possession; it’s up to the entire staff and the individual players to determine whether or not this defensive puzzle turns into a Rubik’s Cube.

SWAMP ALERT Defcon: 4 out of 5

Pertaining to: every road game this season

                         i.e. at LSU

                               at South Carolina

                               at Kentucky (YES, even Kentucky scares me)

                         every SEC game this season

                         i.e. Tennessee

                               Auburn

                               Georgia (16 out of 18 could be in jeopardy)

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