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Grading the defense

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that the 2012 season is over, it's time to examine how well the Gators performed in each area this season. Today GatorNation will grade the defense. We graded the offense on Tuesday.

Defensive line

The starters: DE Dominique Easley, NT Omar Hunter, DT Sharrif Floyd, Lerentee McCray (Buck)

Key reserves: DE Earl Okine, DE Jonathan Bullard, NT Leon Orr, DT Damien Jacobs, Dante Fowler (Buck)

Projected starters in 2013: Bullard, Orr, Jacobs, Ronald Powell (Buck)

The breakdown: By the end of the season, the defensive line was playing its best football, especially Hunter and Floyd. Hunter played the best football of his career as a senior and finished with 40 tackles and four pass breakups. He was a run-stuffing presence in the middle of the line and stood his own against double-teams but still was able to shake blockers and make tackles.

Floyd had a fantastic season, which is why he's leaving early for the NFL. He had 46 tackles, including a team-high 13 for loss, and was disruptive in the running game and as a pass rusher. He had three sacks and consistently pushed the pocket back into the quarterback. He and Hunter were a big reason teams managed just 94.9 yards per game on the ground.

Orr and Jacobs were solid pieces of the rotation who should become quality starters in 2013.

UF's pass rush wasn't spectacular (30 sacks) but it was pretty good in spurts. McCray (three sacks) graduates, but there is a lot of optimism about the pass rush because of the play of Bullard and Fowler as freshmen and the expected return of Powell next season. Bullard and Fowler combined for four sacks, and Bullard had a team-high seven QB hurries. The coaching staff believed Powell was poised for a breakout season before he suffered a torn ACL at the end of the spring game.

Easley was solid in his move from tackle to end but didn't meet expectations. His decision to return for his senior season was the right one.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The starters: WLB Jelani Jenkins, MLB Jon Bostic, SLB Neiron Ball

Key reserves: Michael Taylor, Antonio Morrison, Darrin Kitchens

Projected starters in 2013: Morrison, Taylor, Ball

The breakdown: UF coach Will Muschamp challenged the unit to make more big plays this season, and it did. Jenkins had a key interception against Florida State and returned a blocked punt for a game-winning touchdown. Taylor had a sack late in the first half that pushed Texas A&M out of field goal range in a game the Gators rallied to win. Morrison knocked the ball away from Florida State QB EJ Manuel in the fourth quarter to help spark UF's comeback.

Bostic was a steady player (68 tackles, 3.0 sacks, two interceptions) who still sometimes had trouble getting off blocks and got out of position at times. Taylor was solid against the run but struggled in pass protection.

Morrison is undersized (218 pounds) but is the Gators' most athletic and physical linebacker. He played extensively as a freshman and is a player the coaching staff is excited about in 2013.

Jenkins missed four games this season because of a broken finger, broken foot, and hamstring strain. He had 29 tackles, two sacks, and one interception. He also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown with two seconds remaining to give the Gators a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. But he surprisingly declared for the NFL draft, and his departure leaves the Gators without an experienced starter.

Ball is an intriguing player. He missed the 2011 season after suffering a bursted blood vessel in his brain and started 2012 slow. He gradually improved and was playing pretty well by the end of the season. The coaching staff is expecting a lot from him in 2013.

Grade: B

Secondary

The starters: CB Marcus Roberson, CB Jaylen Watkins, FS Josh Evans, SS Matt Elam

Key reserves: Loucheiz Purifoy, Valdez Showers, Jabari Gorman, Cody Riggs, Brian Poole

Projected starters in 2013: Roberson, Watkins, Poole, Purifoy

The breakdown: The secondary was the strength of the defense despite being carved up by Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators intercepted 20 passes and allowed teams 192.5 yards per game passing.

Elam (76 tackles, four interceptions) was a first-team All-American, and Evans (team-high 83 tackles, three interceptions) was the team's most improved player. Elam, who is leaving early for the NFL, made the biggest play of the season when he stripped the ball from LSU WR Odell Beckham. The Gators went on to score the clinching touchdown.

The corners were fantastic, even after Riggs was lost for the season with a broken bone in his foot suffered in the second game. The staff asked a lot of Roberson, Watkins and Purifoy in playing almost exclusively man coverage, and the three delivered. They combined for 25 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Purifoy was the most physical corner and also was one of UF's special teams standouts. He also spent some time at receiver and could spend more time there next season.

Showers, Gorman and Poole are talented but young. The staff really likes Poole and has trained him to play corner and safety.

Grade: A