Defense rules at Florida, at least under Will Muschamp

Monday, August 25, 2014 | 7:22 p.m. CDT; updated 7:37 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 25, 2014
Florida coach Will Muschamp disputes a call in the second half of a game against Toledo.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Whether he's screaming from the sideline or punching a white board in the locker room, Florida's Will Muschamp knows defense.

It's what he played.

It's what he coached.

It's what the Gators have done best during his tenure.

Often overshadowed by a woeful offense, Florida's defense has set a pretty high standard during Muschamp's first three seasons in Gainesville. The Gators have ranked no lower than eighth nationally in total defense, giving up less than 300 yards a game with Muschamp in charge.

And despite losing the team's best pass rusher and several starters in the secondary, Florida expects to be defensively stout again this season.

"Absolutely," Muschamp said last week. "We'll play well. ... We have the key ingredients of what you want, in my opinion. Now we got to go do it. Talk is cheap."

The Gators have nothing to boast about after last season. They lost their final seven games, missed a bowl game and ended up with their first losing record since 1979.

Little went right, not even on defense.

Florida was gouged at times, giving up 500 yards in a loss at Missouri, allowing 429 yards rushing in a shocking home defeat to lower-division Georgia Southern and then surrendering 456 yards in a season-ending setback against in-state rival and eventual national champion Florida State.

It was uncharacteristic for a unit that had kept Florida in several games throughout the season. But key injuries played a factor. So did a lack of confidence in the team's much-maligned offense, which had personnel and coaching issues that eventually carried over to the other side of the ball.

"We had some individualism on the team last year," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Last year it was more, 'I got me. I got this.' This year, it's more, 'We, us, team.' It's not 'I.' It's more team. We're more together."

The Gators get their first chance to show 2013 was a fluke Saturday when they open the season against Idaho, which has just four wins over the last three seasons.

Muschamp has repeatedly expressed confidence that his team will make a quick turnaround, much like fellow Southeastern Conference teams Auburn and Missouri did last season.

Although Muschamp expects the offense to be markedly better under new coordinator Kurt Roper, he's equally convinced the defense will return to form.

The unit lost Dominique Easley, who turned pro after a season-ending knee injury in September, and defensive backs Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins.

But the Gators have two budding stars in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

Fowler, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior from St. Petersburg, has just six sacks in two seasons. He's been the team's best pass rusher in camp, but whether he has a breakout year could depend on the guys around him. After all, if fellow starting linemen Jonathan Bullard, Leon Orr and Darious Cummings aren't disruptive, opponents surely will chip and double Fowler or roll quarterbacks away from his side.

"That's something we've talked about and know it could happen," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "We do enough up front to move Dante around and that's a hard thing to do because he doesn't play in one spot."

Hargreaves will move around, too.

The 5-11 sophomore from Tampa started 10 games as a freshman and finished with 11 pass breakups and three interceptions. His breakups equaled the most by a true freshman in school history, matching what Janoris Jenkins did in 2008.

"He's really stepped up as a leader. We've seen him grow in that area," Durkin said. "Vernon still understands he's got to get better and he still has things to work on and we push him on that every day and he does a great job. He practices hard, prepares well and we expect big things from him."

Muschamp said the same about the entire defense.

He believes the unit is strong up the middle and at linebacker. The weak leak could be the secondary, where only Hargreaves and safety Keanu Neal have locked down starting spots.

So there is some uncertainty, but given Muschamp's track record, there's no cause for concern.

"We feel like we have enough talent to do whatever we want to do and accomplish our goals," Bullard said. "We're just working as hard as we can and getting the best we can as a unit and getting everybody on the same page. If we do that, we'll be fine."

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