What to watch for in the spring game: defense

Yesterday, we began our two part preview of Florida’s spring game (which is tomorrow… my God, how time flies) with a look at the Gators’ offense, and what to expect out of it. Today, we present the back end of that preview by taking a look at the Florida defense, and what we can expect out of it tomorrow.

Here goes:

#1: Hello, my name is Quincy Wilson

Vernon Hargreaves this. Vernon Hargreaves that. Vernon Hargreaves here. Vernon Hargreaves there. When talking about the Florida secondary, that’s pretty much all you hear, and if you do hear about a second DB, it’s probably Jalen Tabor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good reason for that- Hargreaves was an All-American corner as a sophomore and Tabor recorded that ridiculous one handed pick against Vanderbilt– but opposing offenses can avoid one top corner, and good offenses can avoid two. You need that third quality DB to effectively shut down the passing game.

Florida’s got a deep talent pool of quality defensive backs, but Quincy Wilson is the one that appears most likely to break out to me. For one, he’s extremely versatile, having played corner, nickel and dime this spring, and has received praise from DB coach Kirk Callahan for his performance at each position. He also really came on late last year, picking off Jameis WINTston (couldn’t resist) in the regular season finale and then recording four tackles in the Birmingham Bowl. He’s exceptional at press coverage and isn’t afraid to get physical with receivers at the line, and combines that physicality with an increased level of intelligence that he didn’t seem to have (to me, at least) coming out of high school.

So let’s see what you’ve got, Q man. Let’s see how you fare against a hungry Gator receiving corps, and inversely, how they fare against you.

#2: Upperclassmen leadership

I’m not afraid to say it: should Vernon Hargreaves elect to leave for the NFL after this season, Florida very well could see three of its eleven defensive starters this year taken in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. As a rising junior who’s seen a lot of playing time and been selected as an All-American, VH3 is a leader by pretty much any definition of the word. So are DL Jonathan Bullard and LB Antonio Morrison (even though he missed the entire spring and thus won’t play tomorrow). The three of them alone give Florida one of the nation’s most talented and experienced defense.

Now, it’s time to see how they interact with the youngsters, the ones who will someday replace them. I’m sure there will be a point in time where a young defensive player makes a mistake. Let’s see how that’s received by the vets. A pat on the shoulder or helmet, a quick constructive conversation with the player, etc. I’m looking for the types of things you teach young children how to do, because let’s face it- there were times under Muschamp where the defense didn’t communicate at all.

Morrison isn’t going to play. Let’s see what he does on the sidelines. Does he walk around, talking to players and giving them coaching tips? How about Bullard and Hargreaves when they’re on the sidelines? I’m almost as curious about this as I am about the actual game.

#3: Overall secondary play

We kind of covered the secondary in the first topic, but Florida also had a really talented secondary last year- and got repeatedly torched for huge plays. Kentucky (twice), LSU, ECU, Alabama (twice deep, once on a screen) and Vanderbilt all hit huge plays because the Gators’ secondary was caught napping. No more of that, please.

Granted, Florida’s pass offense is still in its infancy stages, because a) the Gators are breaking in two new QBs, b) there’s a new coach and a new offense to learn and c) Florida’s returning receiving corps aren’t particularly scary for opponents, other than DeMarcus Robinson. But that’s all the more reason to hope and expect that the Florida defensive backs don’t get too eager and jump a route that turns out to be simple bait, or bite on a head fake by a receiver. If a corner does get burned, I’d like to see the safeties recognize it immediately and come over to help out.

The players are all the same from last year- VH3, Tabor, Brian Poole, Wilson, Duke Dawson, Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal (plus JC Jackson)- but now they’re a year older and smarter. If you watched each of their tape and rated their natural talent with an objective eye, you would never guess that this secondary was responsible for all the third and Nevadas that opponents converted last year, but they were. I’m fine with giving up some pass yards as long as it all comes in front of the DBs. I don’t want to see receivers flying past the DBs, as that usually happens because of something the DB did wrong as opposed to something the receiver did right. I guess the bottom line is this: I want to see this incredibly gifted secondary play smart.

#4: Increased roles for youngsters on the front seven

Will Muschamp didn’t leave Florida with very much, but he did leave Florida with some talent on the defensive side of the ball. To name a few: Alex McCalister, Alex Anzalone, Jordan Sherit, Matt Rolin, Taven Bryan, Joey Ivie and Daniel McMillian are among those who are going to see more playing time than they did last year. Who sees how much will depend at least some on what happens tomorrow.

The injury to Morrison has given Rolin, Anzalone and McMillian a chance to step up and become key contributors at the middle level of the defense. Jarrad Davis and Morrison will probably be the starters in the fall anyway, but if these guys play well tomorrow, they could at least make Geoff Collins think twice before naming his starters. And even if not, so what; Collins relies on depth. That’s what makes his defense so ferocious. The situation is similar on the defensive line. Losing Dante Fowler to the NFL has opened the door for guys like Bryan, Ivie, Sherit and McCalister to get increased reps, and they’ve all looked very good in practices so far, particularly when relying on sheer speed to beat the offensive linemen.

Unfortunately, Florida’s offensive line is such a mess (thanks, Muschamp) that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether Florida’s defensive line is that good or the offensive line is that bad. And it sucks even more that we won’t be able to get a good answer to that question tomorrow because of the reason I just mentioned. But I’m still anxious to see who in that front seven is able to stand out against the rest.

#5: Overall energy level

Last week, Geoff Collins told the media that he encourages the defense to celebrate after making big plays as long as it was done in a team first manner. In short, I can’t wait to see how that plays out on the field, even in a spring game.

Will Muschamp has, with no apologies, completely drained the energy out of the Gator Nation. And if you don’t think players are influenced at all by what fans think, you’re fooling yourself. Sure, most of the defensive players liked Muschamp, but that was because he groomed them well and prepared them to fulfill their childhood dreams of playing football in exchange for fat paychecks. His failure to win games introduced a feeling of failure that settled over the fan base and eventually seeped into the locker room.

McElwain has, at least temporarily, removed that negative vibe and replaced it with a much more promising one. There’s no legitimate reason to be thinking negative right now, because the future appears to be so bright for Gator football. It’s just a spring game, I know, but in a lot of ways, it’s the start of the 2015 season. I’m looking for some players to be dancing in between plays, like Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler once did, and celebrating with each other like Geoff Collins said they should.


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