GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp is concerned about his middle.
Not his waistline, though.
Muschamp is worried about the middle of his defense. A good defense hinges on being solid at defensive tackle, middle linebacker, and safety -- and that's where the Gators' biggest questions are as they head into the 2013 season.
"You better be strong up the middle," Muschamp said. "You look at any sport. Look at basketball, you better have a point guard and you better have a center. You better have a pitcher and a catcher in baseball. There's no question we've got to be strong up the middle. That's something that's a question mark."
Florida has to replace all five starters in those middle positions. Nose tackle Omar Hunter, middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic, and safety Josh Evans graduated, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam decided to bypass their senior seasons for the NFL. It's not going to be an easy task, especially along the defensive line.
Redshirt junior Leon Orr (25 career tackles) steps into the starting job at nose tackle and senior Damien Jacobs (10 career tackles) moves into Floyd's old spot at tackle. Both were part of the rotation last season. However, there's only one other player on the roster who has played a snap at defensive tackle: senior end Dominique Easley, who started 12 games at tackle in 2011 before moving out to end last season. He will rotate between the two spots in 2013.
Junior Darious Cummings is a juco transfer from East Mississippi Community College and Joey Ivie is an early enrollee. They're the only other tackles on the roster right now. Four other tackles will arrive in July: Jay-nard Bostwick (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Centennial), Caleb Brantley (Crescent City, Fla./Crescent City), Jarran Reed (East Mississippi Community College) and Antonio Riles (Lawrenceville, Ga./Archer).
"We need some contribution and we need some guys to step up [at tackle]," Muschamp said. "We've got to get production from those guys as opposed to repping Dominique in there. I know what he can do. Those four guys have to get as many reps as they can through spring ball. We need to find out what those guys can do and feel good about those guys coming out of spring ball."
There's a lot more confidence about middle linebacker. Sophomore Antonio Morrison is moving from outside and will replace Bostic. The question is whether the 6-foot-1 Morrison, who played at 218 pounds last season and is up to 229 this spring, is durable enough. He played a lot last season -- started two games in place of the injured Jelani Jenkins at weakside linebacker -- and delivered one of the season's top plays when he knocked the ball loose from Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. UF capitalized on the turnover to score the go-ahead touchdown.
But can Morrison, who had 34 tackles in 2012, hold up to a season of playing the middle in the Southeastern Conference? UF is hoping so, because behind him is freshman early enrollee Alex Anzalone.
"Antonio is a very physical player to begin with," linebackers coach/defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "He's put some weight on, size on, this offseason. I think he'll be just fine. By the time we get to the year he'll be about 230 pounds or so.
"He's a durable guy, and that's kind of his nature, his style of play."
The Gators are going with two of their smaller defensive backs at safety: 5-foot-9, 184-pound Cody Riggs and 5-10, 186-pound Jabari Gorman. Riggs has played in 28 games and started 14 at cornerback, but the redshirt junior missed all but two games last season with a broken foot. Gorman has played in 25 games but has just 10 tackles. He did have an interception and a fumble recovery last season.
Behind Riggs and Gorman on the depth chart are redshirt freshman Marcus Maye and redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers. Senior Jaylen Watkins, who has 19 starts at cornerback, also can play safety, as can sophomore Brian Poole.
"We have some flexibility, but again, at the end of the day we've got to get our best players on the field, whether that's at safety or nickel or corner," Muschamp said. "It really doesn't matter."
As long as the Gators become strong in the middle.