Commentary

Young Gator D struggles with turnovers

Florida's inexperienced defensive backs were often hesitant to take chances

Updated: December 2, 2011, 10:31 AM ET
By Jeff Barlis | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Creating turnovers was one of the biggest points of emphasis by Florida coach Will Muschamp and his defensive coaching staff this season. With the Gators' failure in this area, it was also one of Muschamp's biggest frustrations.

Every week, he stood before the media and shook his head over the lack of results. His disappointment was obvious, and it grew to wearisome levels as the season wore on.

[+] EnlargeDe'Ante Saunders
AP Photo/ Phil SandlinTrue freshman safety De'Ante Saunders (26) came on late in the season with two interceptions.
"That's not happened for us this year and we've got to do a better job of coaching," he said near the end of the season. "The only way I can look at it, is that way.

"I've said it before -- two years ago I was the defensive coordinator at Texas and we led the country in turnovers. We're not emphasizing it a whole lot differently than we are now."

Indeed, Muschamp has emphasized turnover margin. Before the season he said it was the key stat he looks at to predict winning.

"The stat I am going to emphasize with our team is turnover margin," he said on Aug. 5. "Last year of the top 10 teams in turnover margin, six of them played in BCS games."

The Gators ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in takeaways and turnover margin. Florida was last with four fumbles recovered, last with eight interceptions and last with 12 total takeaways.

The Gators finished minus-11 in turnover margin, worst in the SEC by far. Ole Miss was second-worst with a minus-8 on the season, but the three teams tied with the third-worst turnover stats (Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn) had a margin of zero.

Florida's minus-11 turnover margin translated to minus-0.92 turnovers per game, which ranked 114th in the nation out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Muschamp refused to blame his players, offering only to put the blame on himself and his team's coaching. He had few answers and few theories, but one of his players did.

"A lot of guys don't like to make mistakes with a young team," said linebacker Jelani Jenkins, a redshirt sophomore. "I wouldn't consider us a young team [so late] in the season, but yeah, we have a young secondary."

Last year, senior strong safety Ahmad Black was a consistent ball hawk and a vocal team leader. He teamed with junior Will Hill at free safety. Florida also had experience at cornerback with junior Janoris Jenkins and redshirt sophomore Jeremy Brown. Jenkins, one of the top corners in the nation, was dismissed in the offseason after a string of off-the-field incidents and now plays for North Alabama. Brown has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury.

Those four starters had 13 of Florida's 22 interceptions in 2010.

In 2011, four new faces -- two freshmen and two sophomores -- started the majority of the season in Florida's defensive backfield. They accounted for six of UF's eight interceptions.

There are signs of hope, however, as sophomore strong safety Matt Elam emerged as one of Florida's best and most consistent players on either side of the ball. He had two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2011.

Florida coaches are high on true freshman cornerback Marcus Roberson, who had one interception, one fumble recovery and started every game until a neck injury forced him out of the last two games. Another true freshman, free safety De'Ante Saunders, started throughout the year and came on with interceptions in back-to-back games late in the season.

"He has a really good eye for the ball," Jenkins said of Saunders. "He breaks on you. He likes to make plays. He takes shots, and that's something that we need to do.

"I'm proud of him. We always talk about how we've got to make the big play when the team needs us."

Always a big play, turnovers were something Florida needed and lacked all season.

Jeff Barlis is editor and writer for GatorNation. He can be reached at jeffbarlis.espn@gmail.com or on Twitter @JeffBarlisESPN.