You picture Florida football, and you picture defensive prowess. In the Will Muschamp era, the Gators posted top-five finishes in total defense in the conference every year (2011-2014).
Yet while the Gators have consistently fielded stout defensive units, the program as a whole has struggled to return to its lofty standards set by Urban Meyer and company last decade. The Gators have gone 17-15 in conference play over the course of the past four seasons, and while the offensive struggles have been undeniable at times, this team almost played in the natty in 2012 for one reason: its defense.
Florida's defense ranked 15th in the country last season and the team finished just above .500, so shouldn't we be focusing on the quarterback battle unfolding between Treon Harris and Will Grier? Shouldn't we be wondering if there is a Percy Harvin or Jordan Reed in this locker room?
Well, yes and no.
While the offense was not exactly breathtaking in 2014, Florida's success in 2012 because of its defense rebuts claims that a team cannot be a legitimate national title contender without a star QB or a high-flying offense. The 2012 Gators defeated Louisiana-Lafayette by one touchdown (in a home game in November), and still managed to somewhat resemble an elite team in the process.
How? Defense and more defense.
First-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins should be able to sit back and watch his exceptionally talented secondary make plays all day, but the front seven has just a few more question marks. A handful of freshmen defensive linemen (plus one freshman linebacker) will likely get a chance to contribute this season in some capacity.
Alex McCalister and Jonathan Bullard are veteran defensive ends, but newcomer CeCe Jefferson looks too talented to not earn significant minutes. A consensus five-star prospect, Jefferson comes to Gainesville as the No. 2 ranked DE prospect in the land. Well, hello there. At 6'3"/248, Jefferson looks like he could be the next Dante Fowler Jr. He has the motor and raw athleticism to become something truly special, and he should be a key defender in Collins' system over the next couple of years. Jefferson is a guy capable of playing as a DE in a 4-3 or as an OLB in a 3-4. His form tackling and versatility, plus his immense athleticism, make this kid look like the real deal and then some.
Only one linebacker signed in the 2015 class, OLB Rayshad Jackson. A Miami area guy, Jackson is an intriguing player and one to keep an eye on, but his game action could be minimal this season because of the veteran players who figure to earn most of the snaps. Mike linebacker and defensive leader Antonio Morrison returns for his senior season, while Jarrad Davis will be deployed as the weak-side linebacker. However, if Jackson looks promising in practice and shows well early in the season, he could earn some playing time and make his way onto the field in some of Geoff Collins' defensive alignments.
CeCe Jefferson looks like an absolute specimen and a tremendous talent, while Jackson could develop into an undersized LB who excels simply because of his football instincts and his ability to track down quarterbacks while also demonstrating strong coverage skills (the latter could use some improvement, but he has not even played a down of college ball yet). Linebackers like Arizona's Scooby Wright have made a name for themselves at such a high level because they are just playmakers. Same deal with Jackson. Put him on the field and watch him go to work.
Florida's defense is replete with defensive monsters. Although Jim McElwain will face tremendous scrutiny in his first season at the helm, his job will be a whole lot easier if this defensive unit maximizes its potential. Outstanding defenses often receive pleasant surprises when young talents are able to contribute right away.
Florida added some pretty sporty playmakers to the front seven, and despite the fact that predicting absolutely anything about the 2015 Florida Gators seems borderline impossible, I'll throw this out there...
Could Florida have the best defense in the conference this season?