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Sunday, January 23, 2022

It is a confession few players are willing to make, especially in college.

Then again, the first step in fixing a bad habit is admitting the problem.

“Last year, I took a lot of plays off,” safety Will Hill said. “I have a lot of emphasis on that right now.”

And those words came from a rising junior who ranked sixth on the team in tackles last season as part of one of the best defenses in the country. This spring has featured plenty of turnover on the defense, from the players to the coaches.

Six defensive starters from the Sugar Bowl are no longer here. There are two new coaches — including a coordinator — on that side of the ball.

This year’s defense has put an extra emphasis on effort this spring.

Hill realizes he is a definite starter this fall. The past two seasons he was called a “starter” along with fellow safeties Ahmad Black and Major Wright, but Hill seemed to take a backseat to those two. With Wright headed to the NFL Draft, the younger defensive backs are looking up to Hill as he used to do to others.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has only been on the job for a few months, but he said he saw lapses of effort on tape some. He has stressed it this spring, though, and has seen positive returns so far.

“It’s starting to show. He’s taking more of a leadership role,” Austin said. “He’s kind of a quiet guy, but when you watch him, he’s doing everything 100 miles per hour.”

The UF defense also has two holes to fill in the middle with Ryan Stamper and Brandon Spikes no longer around. Besides being two of the best players, Stamper and Spikes were veteran leaders.

One of the people who will likely be called upon to fill such a role is rising senior Brandon Hicks. He finished third on the team with four sacks last season behind only UF’s starting defensive ends, Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham. He could see more of an outside rushing role if the Gators implement more 3-4 action into their gameplan.

“It’s a big responsibility because everybody’s looking at you,” Hicks said. “Everybody’s going to evaluate you and see how you play.

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“I want to be that person that everybody looks to for that energy and motivation.”

While meaning no disrespect to those who have left, Hicks isn’t worried about a falloff in this year’s group, and he doesn’t believe the unit’s identity will be any different.

“It isn’t going to change because one man is gone,” Hicks said. “It’s another opportunity for anther man to step in his place.”

This spring likely won’t provide all the answers for the Gators because there are still nine incoming freshmen who won’t hit the practice fields until August.

But Austin believes the spring will be vitally important in molding his unit’s identity, even if players are still shifting around and position battles are ongoing.

“You start it now,” Austin said. “You figure out what kind of team you’re going to be right now.”

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