University of Florida

Depleted Florida Gators striving to stay elite on defense

Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, left, throws a pass as he is hit by Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, right, during the first half of the Citrus Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.
Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, left, throws a pass as he is hit by Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, right, during the first half of the Citrus Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. AP

On the first day of spring practice, Florida star linebacker Jarrad Davis jogged onto the field, looked around and felt a bit uneasy.

The Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense in 2015, but six former starters are off to the NFL, including an All-American cornerback, UF’s two sack-masters, the team’s leading tackler and a versatile, playmaking safety.

“The first play was kind of weird. I’m not going to lie,” Davis said. “It was weird not seeing those guys around me.”

With cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive tackle Jon Bullard, safety Keanu Neal and others now gone, Davis, a rising senior who racked up 98 tackles last season, is tasked with embracing a leadership role and maintaining UF’s defensive dominance of the past several seasons.

The 6-2, 230-pound enforcer won’t totally shoulder the load, though, as Davis remains surrounded by a talented group that includes all All-Southeastern Conference cornerback Jalen Tabor, senior safety Marcus Maye and budding defensive linemen Caleb Brantley and CeCe Jefferson.

“Once that first ball was snapped, we just got to the ball on defense,” Davis said. “We were flying around. Communicating. We got everybody in there that we need right now. Everybody we have on this squad is going to play their role and do it well.”

Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins certainly hopes so.

The Gators must replace a lot of production, but Collins refuses to accept a drop-off in performance. He wants his defense to be better than it was last season.

“There’s a high expectation in that room, high expectations with that group,” he said. “We’ve stepped right were we left off. The expectation is to take it even higher than we were, and that’s nothing we’re going to shy away from.”

Still, the sheer void on the stat sheet is real.

Florida’s six departures combined for nearly 75 percent of the team’s tackles in 2015. The Gators also lost 48 tackles for loss,  17 1/2 sacks, five interceptions and 19 passes defended.

“In the first or second meeting in the offseason, what we do is put up a production sheet of what we lost at each position,” Collins explained.

“And we challenge those guys: ‘Here’s what we’re going to miss. Here’s stats that are coming off the board right now.

 ‘Who’s going to step up. Is it going to [be] one [guy], is it going to be multiple [guys]?’ Either way is fine, but somebody’s got to fill that void for us. And then say they know that and collectively work to make up for that.”

The Gators have ranked in the top 10 in total defense in seven of the past eight seasons, so the standard of excellence has been set.

Now it’s up to Collins, Davis and the rest of the Gators to continue the legacy.

“The guys that are supposed to step up — Marcus Maye, Bryan Cox, Jarrad Davis, Caleb Brantley — are doing that,” Collins said.

“The positive energy, the enthusiasm and the guys flying around … We’ve got some guys, the four mid-year guys, the older guys are really taking it upon themselves to get them ready. Making sure they know the defense, know the expectation in our room.”

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