Greg: With fans and scouts ogling Florida’s early entrants to the NFL Draft, few have noticed the players UF loses to graduation.
While mostly unspectacular, the class of 2012 was solid, and the Gators will miss many of its key players.
Although Josh Evans led the team in tackles and Mike Gillislee carried the offense, Omar Hunter will prove most difficult to replace.
At 6 feet and 313 pounds, Hunter anchored the nation’s No. 4 rush defense. Although he made only 40 tackles and four tackles for loss, his ability to start every game and eat space on the line made life easier for the rest of the defense. And he did it while bearing a striking and lovable resemblance to the father figure in the animated children’s show “Dinosaurs.” You don’t just replace that.
Adam: Hunter did have a hell of a year. He became a father late in the season and is perhaps the nicest player on the team. He’s no Evans, though. Leading Florida in tackles is more impressive. The safety recorded 83 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 3 interceptions. Evans approached the coaching staff in the offseason asking for help on making defensive calls.
Teamed with junior safety Matt Elam, Evans prevented plays from turning into what Muschamp calls “explosives.” Florida doesn’t have the same depth from at safety that it has along the defensive line. Muschamp did bring in three safeties with his latest star-studded recruiting class, but there isn’t the same returning talent in the defensive backfield that the defensive line boasts. Returning players Dante Fowler Jr., Jonathan Bullard and Dominique Easley will give quarterbacks hell for another season. There is also an early enrollee freshman named Darious “Bear” Cummings. You try running against a bear, Luca. It just doesn’t work.
Greg: First off, if you see me fighting a bear, you better jump in and help the bear.
Just because Cummings has a cool name and weighs 305 pounds doesn’t mean he’s ready to anchor a Southeastern Conference defense on the majority of its snaps. The same goes for 304-pound recruit Caleb Brantley. As Muschamp is fond of saying, transitioning to the strength and physicality of the SEC is a daunting task, especially for line-of-scrimmage players.
Fowler, Bullard and Easley are all likely to become elite pass rushers. But not one of them plays tackle or weighs more than 280 pounds. Although they’re great defensive linemen, they simply aren’t anchor players.
The other options are 305-pound sophomore Leon Orr, who is known more for a marijuana-related arrest than anything he’s done on the field, and 284-pound junior Damien Jacobs. Even if they pan out, they obviously can’t play every snap.
In the secondary, depth and positional versatility aren’t issues. The Gators have a wealth of talent on the back end. Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins could both shift to safety. Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and incoming five-star recruit Vernon Hargreaves III will form an elite cornerback trio regardless.
Adam: Evans gave the Gators a physical safety that wasn’t afraid to get in the arena and play. Sure, Texas A&M running back Ben Malena ran over Evans in College Station, Texas. See YouTube if you need a refresher. Evans didn’t just add versatility, though. He also played more snaps than the defensive tackle. Hunter admitted earlier this season that he played much less in 2012 due to increased depth along the line. Florida didn’t have that luxury in the secondary.
Riggs missed the season with a fractured foot. Roberson and Watkins played cornerback, and the only true safety with any playing time coming back is De’Ante Saunders — oh, wait. Brian Poole and Jabari Gorman headline a group of young players expected to earn more playing time at safety. Who says Riggs and Watkins will have an easier time at safety than Fowler and Bullard playing inside? Florida can hide the absence of a 300-pound nose tackle with blitzes and stunts. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has that on lock. You can’t hide a hole at safety. Just look at the production Florida has coming back at the safety and nose tackle positions.
Greg: Sure, Hunter’s snaps were limited in 2012. And yes, depth was key to the Gators’ success. But those facts aren’t knocks against Hunter.
No 300-pound player can handle the pounding of a double team for more than 60 or 70 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. When Hunter was asked to do that in 2011, the rush defense noticeably suffered, ranking 40th nationally with 132.7 yards per game allowed. In 2012, Hunter had backup, and Florida’s rush defense improved by 38 yards per game and 36 spots in the rankings.
Without a solid two deep in the middle, the Gators could backslide on rush defense in 2013. In a league where controlling the clock and running the ball are paramount, any weakness on the defensive line could be a critical fault.
And if the Gators can’t hold the point of attack, no safety play or elaborate defensive scheme will make a difference.
Adam: The SEC may be a line-of-scrimmage league, but the question here is what will the Gators miss more — a player at an invaluable position, that they have depth at, or a player in the secondary who they may not have a suitable replacement for? I loved covering Hunter and if I ever did have a kid (I hope not soon), he would probably be the one player I’d let babysit. Greg, let’s just agree to disagree. Props on the Hunter “Dinosaurs” comparison, I must add. Here’s a better one for you, though. Have you ever seen Frankie Muniz in “Malcolm in the Middle?”