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UF defense hurting in various ways
Ineffectiveness bit the Gators first; now the injury bug is making matters worse.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 1, 2007
Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong coaches his players during the LSU game, the second of Florida's three losses this season.
[Brian Cassella | Times]
GAINESVILLE - If the look on Charlie Strong's face didn't tell everything about the current state of the Florida defense, his voice gave the rest away. "I've been better," Strong said after practice this week.
For the co-defensive coordinator, and the rest of the coaching staff, it has been a long, trying season. And on Saturday, the defense faces another tough challenge when Vanderbilt and the SEC's all-time leading receiver, Earl Bennett 215 receptions, come to town.
The Gators knew coming into the season it wasn't going to be easy to defend their national title, especially when they were replacing 10 starters on defense. But eight games in, the coaches had hoped for much more.
"The disappointing thing is there are some guys who should be playing better than they are," said coach Urban Meyer, who called Saturday's loss to Georgia in Jacksonville the "worst defensive effort of the year. ... The bar is high in terms of the expectations of playing defense at Florida. Nine months ago, we held a team to 82 yards and we gave up that many yards in one play on Saturday. We're not playing very good defense right now."
Actually, that's an understatement.
In the past four games, in which they have gone 1-3, the Gators have given up 127 points and 1,642 total yards of offense. They are No.9 in the 12-team SEC in scoring and total defense, 11th in passing defense. Nationally, Florida is ranked 87th in pass defense, giving up 251.6 yards per game.
While Meyer insists "you can't pin everything on the defense" (there were two drive-killing fumbles against Georgia, for example), it is clearly the Achilles' heel. The Gators haven't forced turnovers (six interceptions, three fumble recoveries), the defensive line has been decimated by injuries (making the pass rush nearly nonexistent) and teams are dominating on the ground and in the air.
What makes things most frustrating for the coaches is they still believe this defense could be very good.
"You have talent, you have potential out there, it's just, when are they going to jell?" Strong said. "And the key thing is you're missing leadership. ... You just don't have that right now and you just wish, where is that guy at? When is (linebacker) Brandon Spikes going to come on and be that leader and say, 'Hey guys, we've got to play better.'"
Senior safety Tony Joiner had been counted on to be that guy as the lone returning starter, but he's struggling, too.
"My role is to perform as well as I would like the younger guys to perform," Joiner said. "With my expectations and the coaches' expectations of me, I'm not performing well. I've had mental breakdowns, not making the plays that I'm inclined to be making, having opportunities and not taking advantage of them."
Joiner said with so many new, young players, the team has struggled with chemistry. Also, the Gators rely on players who have been hurt much or all of the season: cornerback Markihe Anderson (knee), tackles Clint McMillan (shoulder) and Lutrell Alford (ankle), who have practiced sparingly lately, and safety Major Wright, who is playing with a broken thumb. And with the loss of defensive linemen Javier Estopinan (ACL), Brandon Antwine (back) and Terron Sanders (high ankle sprain) and cornerback Jerimy Finch (broken ankle), the Gators resorted to trying freshman offensive tackle Michael Pouncey on the defensive line this week at practice.
"It's tough," Strong said. "You just know it's going to come but when is it going to come? You hope it doesn't come too late."