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Defense looks to start improvement in Orange and Blue Debut

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Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008 12:00 am

Duke Lemmens still has a lump in the back of his throat that he has to keep swallowing.

The memories even keep the sophomore defensive end up at night sometimes.

Watching last season's tape doesn't sit well with any member of the UF defense. The unit ranked dead last in the Southeastern Conference in passing yards a game at 258.5 yards a game, almost 20 yards more than the next-to-last team.

Even when the run defense was stout - allowing just 3 yards a carry - the Gators couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback and were burned in the passing game.

"I watched that national championship game when I was a senior in high school," Lemmens said. "I knew - the whole team knew it - we definitely took a step back. The talent was there; it was just the maturity and the confidence of the defense. This year, we're not letting ourselves make those excuses. We're going to restore what Gator defense is all about."

Well, the only way to erase those memories and let Lemmens finally get a good night of sleep is to get back out there. That's exactly what the Gators' defense will do Saturday at the Orange and Blue scrimmage.

But one full year still hasn't passed, and most members of the starting defense still can't crack open a cold Natural Light.

As the freshmen become sophomores and the sophomores become juniors, there's reason to expect improvement. If anything, it at least helps to practice against UF's talented offense.

"On Saturday, we're going to show the SEC what kind of defense we have," said defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap, who has earned the praise of Urban Meyer this spring. "The defense (last year) didn't have pressure, so we made our DBs look bad. The defense we've got now - we're trying to model it after the national championship defense. The whole D-line's working hard to get it back like it was."

And maybe they're on to something, because offensive players have noticed a difference.

"The defense is doing a much better job filling the gaps," running back Kestahn Moore said. "They're getting the system down much better. At first, coach was talking about how the defensive line wasn't there. Now they're playing much harder. The corners are breaking up more passes and making more interceptions. The safeties are coming down and hitting people more."

If there's one sure spot on the defense, it's linebacker Brandon Spikes. The Tim Tebow of the defense has being praised all spring by Meyer and probably won't play much in the spring game because he doesn't need the reps as much.

But even Spikes knows last year wasn't pretty - for anybody.

"A lot of times we could've changed our season by getting off the field on third down," he said. "We needed guys to make plays, and it didn't happen. The year before when we won the national championship, we had big playmakers. Guys were young. They didn't know what to expect when they got hit in the mouth. Now when guys get hit in the mouth, they know how to handle it."

Aside from the defense, there's a problem that Meyer is even more worried about - team chemistry. Whenever Meyer walks through the locker room before practice, he sees players hurry to get off their cell phones and remove the iPod headphones from their ears. Meyer has said he wants those things gone, and for the players to actually talk to each other - like they did on the 2006 title team.

"Last year was awful chemistry on our football team," Meyer said. "I'm surprised it went as well as it did at times. Last year, I think they denied (the chemistry problems). They were shaking hands with the president. 'What are you talking about, coach? We're champs.'"

But a better defense sure would help that off the field.

And that's what the players plan on doing.

"We're going to reshape people's thoughts about our defense this year," Lemmens said. "We got a chip on our shoulder - playing with an attitude. That's what Florida defense has always been like. It's just a bunch of great athletes flying around making plays."

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