Early look: defense

The Gators lose a lot, but several intriguing, young players wait in the wings

Updated: January 15, 2013, 6:26 PM ET
By Michael DiRocco | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- GatorNation takes a look at the projected defensive depth chart for the 2013 Florida Gators in the upcoming spring practice. The offensive depth chart will be examined on Thursday. Classifications in parenthesis are for the 2013 season, and an asterisk denotes a player who enrolled early:

Buck

Dante Fowler Jr. (So.) -- Kedric Johnson (RSr.), Alex McCalister (RFr.), Bryan Cox Jr. (RFr.) Fowler had a solid freshman season (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) as the backup to Lerentee McCray and he'll go into the spring as the starter. He likely won't have that job in the fall, though. Redshirt junior Ronald Powell missed the entire 2012 season after suffering a torn ACL in the spring game. By all accounts he was having a fantastic spring before the injury and appeared poised for a breakout season. Powell will be non-contact this spring but the starting job is his. UF needs to find an elite pass rusher. Powell could be it if he's healthy. Fowler should only improve and the coaching staff really likes McCalister.

Defensive tackle

Damien Jacobs (Sr.). -- Darious Cummings* (Jr.), Joey Ivie*(Fr.) This spot is probably the biggest question mark on defense after the loss of Sharrif Floyd to the NFL. Jacobs is a solid run plugger but he doesn't have the explosiveness and interior pass-rush ability of Floyd, who is projected to be a first-round draft pick. There's not a lot of experienced depth here. Cummings is a run-stuffer, too. Ivie is listed at 270 pounds and would need to get bigger and stronger quickly to have a chance to play very much. Another possibility is moving a couple defensive ends inside, notably senior Dominique Easley and sophomore Jonathan Bullard.

Nose tackle

Leon Orr (RJr.) -- Jacobs (Jr.), Cummings* The Gators aren't exactly loaded at this spot, either. Orr was solid last season (15 tackles, one sack), but is he capable of being a front-line guy? He's another run-plugger who is limited in what he can do as an interior rusher. The tackle spots were a strength last season with Floyd and Omar Hunter, who occupied blockers and allowed the linebackers to make tackles. This group might not be able to do that. Again, moving Easley here is a possibility because the Gators are in much better shape at defensive end.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger, Dominique Easley
Jake Roth/US PresswireDominique Easley's return gives Florida a pass-rushing push on the defensive line.
Defensive end

Easley (Sr.) -- Bullard (So.), Quinteze Williams (RFr.) Easley considered leaving early for the NFL but decided to return, and that was huge for UF's defense. His 5.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss are the most among UF's returning players. Bullard came on strong toward the end of the 2012 season and ended up leading UF with seven quarterback hurries. If those two stay healthy the Gators should have a formidable pass rush, and it would get even better in the fall if Powell is completely healthy.

Strongside linebacker

Neiron Ball (RJr.) -- Darrin Kitchens (Sr.), Alex Anzalone* (Fr.), Daniel McMillian* (Fr.) Ball returned to the field in 2012 after sitting out a season because of bleeding in his brain. He didn't make many tackles but he seemed to be around the ball a lot, recording an interception, a pass breakup, and two fumble recoveries. His development was stunted by his year off, but he improved as the season went along and could be one of the team's biggest surprises. Anzalone and McMillian are quick, rangy, and athletic and it'll be hard for the staff to keep them off the field. They'll play mainly on special teams but will get work on defense.

Middle linebacker

Michael Taylor (RJr.) -- Antonio Morrison (So.), McMillian* (Fr.) Replacing Jon Bostic isn't going to be easy, and it's likely not going to be settled until the fall. Taylor has played there the most, but he's a liability in pass coverage. He's much better against the run and could be the Gators' option on first and second down, with Morrison coming in on third down. Morrison played a lot as a freshman, starting two games in place of the injured Jelani Jenkins at weakside linebacker, and is a big hitter despite weighing just 218 pounds. He'll need to add weight in the offseason, but if he does he might end up winning the job full time. McMillian is versatile enough to play every linebacker spot, but it's likely the staff puts him at one spot and lets him develop there to keep things simpler for him.

Weakside linebacker

Morrison (So.)  Jeremi Powell (RFr.), McMillian* (Fr.), Anzalone* (Fr.) This is Morrison's spot if he doesn't get moved inside. The staff was impressed with how quickly he grasped the defense last season and how physical he played despite being built more like a safety than a linebacker. If Morrison gets moved inside, this spot is wide open. Powell, who was named the scout team player of the week several times in 2012, likely would get first crack at the job. He's a bit undersized too, but he's athletic and can run well.

Cornerback

Marcus Roberson (Jr.) -- Loucheiz Purifoy (Jr.), Cody Riggs (RJr.), Brian Poole (So.) Roberson improved his coverage and ball skills in 2012, recording a team-high 12 pass breakups, and he's probably the Gators' best cover corner. However, he doesn't really like to tackle and does a pretty poor job of it. Purifoy had a breakout season in 2012 but still needs to improve his ball skills. Riggs missed nearly all of last season with a foot injury but should be healthy for spring. Poole cross trained at corner and safety last year and could end up starting at safety.

[+] EnlargeJaylen Watkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireJaylen Watkins intercepted three passes and knocked away eight others for the Gators.
Cornerback

Jaylen Watkins (Sr.) -- Purifoy (Jr.), Jeremy Brown (RSr.) Watkins was one of UF's most improved players in 2012. He had a solid season, breaking up eight passes, making 39 tackles, and intercepting three passes. He's not the most physical player, either, but he is better than Roberson in that respect. Purifoy is the Gators' most physical corner, but he's going to spend some time on offense in the spring, too. How much likely will depend on what the staff sees from the receivers.

Safety

Jabari Gorman (Jr.) -- Poole (So.), Valdez Showers (RSo.), Rhaheim Ledbetter (RFr.) The Gators have a lot of options at safety. Heading into spring Gorman likely has the spot that Josh Evans had last season. Gorman didn't play much on defense last season and finished with two tackles. The staff really likes Poole and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him win a starting job sometime in the spring.

Safety

Showers (RSo.)  Marcus Maye (RFr.), Poole (So.), Ledbetter (RFr.) This is another spot that's up for grabs and Showers has the lead going into spring because of his experience, but he's going to have to hold off the talented Maye and Poole. Ledbetter is a forgotten player, but he was one of the nation's top defensive backs in high school.

Mike DiRocco | email

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