Defense must key Florida Gators rise

Defense must key Florida Gators rise

July 25th, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida linebacker Jon Bostic follows Alabama tailback Trent Richardson during their SEC game last season in Gainesville.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

FLORIDA

Camp start: Aug. 4

Opener: Bowling Green in Gainesville (Sept. 1 on ESPN at 3:30 p.m.)

Fun fact: Florda's offense scored just four touchdowns in the team's five SEC losses last season, with half of those scores being 65-yard receptions by Andre Debose (against Alabama and LSU).

College football is all about winning together and losing together, but the Florida Gators put that adage to the test in 2011.

The Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense last season, but the offense struggled with quarterback John Brantley and was even worse with true freshman backups Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett. The disparity was never more evident than in the regular-season finale against Florida State, when the Seminoles were held to 95 yards on 59 plays yet intercepted Brantley three times to win 21-7.

"It was hard, but at the same time we're a team," Gators senior linebacker Jon Bostic said last week at SEC media days. "This offseason, the offense has really taken it upon themselves to get better, and they know we have one of the best defenses in the nation. If they can move the ball against us in practice, they'll move it on a lot of teams."

If the Gators are to rebound impressively from their first six-loss season since 1987, defense will dictate the rise. Florida allowed 299.5 yards a game last year and returns 15 of its top 16 tacklers.

There were no Gators on the All-SEC first team a year ago, but there is the potential of defensive superstars at every level -- Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley up front, Bostic, Lerentee McCray and Jelani Jenkins at linebacker and Matt Elam at safety. Junior defensive end Ronald Powell, the top prospect nationally in the 2010 signing class, had a stellar spring before tearing his ACL, but coach Will Muschamp said he already is doing straight-ahead running and will play this season.

Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia had defenses that were statistically superior to the Gators last season, but Florida defenders don't want to play second fiddle to anybody this year.

"We want to be tops in every category," Bostic said. "We say we want to be the best defense, but we know it takes a lot to be the best defense. It's not something that's just given to us, so we've got to do the little things right."

Bostic, a 6-foot-1, 243-pounder out of Palm Beach Central High School, leads all Gators with 169 career tackles, and he has 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and three interceptions. He tallied 94 tackles and 10 tackles for loss a year ago.

"Jon had a solid junior season, but I'm looking for him to take the next step as far as leadership and those things are concerned," Muschamp said. "I thought he did a great job in the spring."

To enhance a program that ran the fewest plays of any Bowl Subdivision team and was outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarters of SEC games, Muschamp hired Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to the same post in Gainesville. Boise State averaged 44.2 points and 481.3 yards a game behind veteran quarterback Kellen Moore, but Pease now has a quarterback race with Driskel and Brissett and has nothing really established at running back or receiver, either.

Senior tailback Mike Gillislee was talking up a 1,000-yard season at media days -- quite lofty after gaining 328 yards in each of the past two seasons -- and the top returning pass-catcher is junior tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's best hopes for a vastly improved offense may start up front, where the Gators return four starters, including tackles Matt Patchan and Chaz Green.

The Gators open at home against Bowling Green before going on the road to face Texas A&M and Tennessee, so it won't take long for Florida's defense to realize if the offense will pull more weight this time around.

"It was really just doing the best we could last year," Bostic said. "When Brantley went down, we knew we had some freshmen get their names called earlier than they expected. They were thinking they had another year before they even got out there, so we tried to do the best job we could of getting the ball back to them."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.