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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Rally: Is Ronald Powell’s injury a significant blow to UF’s defense?

JOHN: All of the offseason signals pointed to the belief that Ronald Powell was finally becoming the elite playmaker on defense he was recruited to be.

After two inconsistent years at Florida, Powell — who was once the No. 1 overall recruit in the country — garnered steady praise from coach Will Muschamp throughout spring practice for his improvement at the Buck linebacker position.

The upcoming season was supposed to be a breakout year for not only Powell but also the rest of the Gators’ defense.

Not anymore.

Those plans and predictions have been put on hold for at least four to six months after it was announced Monday that Powell will require surgery after suffering a torn ACL in Saturday’s spring game.

For as long as Powell remains out, there’s no way Florida’s defense can grow into a dominant Southeastern Conference unit without its leader in sacks.

Don’t be surprised if that means another season of watching a number of opposing quarterbacks walk out of The Swamp with clean jerseys and a win under their belts.

MATT: The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Oh, no, Super Powie is out!

C’mon, Boothe, really? The Gators defense finished eighth nationally a season ago in spite of Powell, not because of him. And it will be better this year without him.

Believe the hearsay out of Team Muschamp’s mouths all you want, but the Powell I saw Saturday was the same one who got pushed around all last year, and the same one who was never going to materialize into the feared edge rusher everyone anointed him as before he had played a meaningful snap.

Even on the play in which he was injured, Powell showed his — ahem — softer side. All it took was a gentle shove from Chaz Green to send the “heralded” Buck linebacker flailing to an awkward landing on the sideline.

He was never going to be the answer at Muschamp’s coveted spot, regardless of how many times the New Ball Coach says he has done “some nice things.” In fact, Florida already has his replacement on the roster, and that guy’s name is Lerentee McCray.

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JOHN: So in his fifth year of eligibility McCray is going to be the awe-inspiring answer to UF missing its best pass-rushing option?

While I’m not going to deride the abilities of a fellow Ocala native, McCray — who is a much better fit as the Sam linebacker — has been plagued with his own chronic injury issues that have tempered his production.

McCray missed four games last season with a shoulder injury that lingered into the offseason, causing Muschamp to hold him from spring practice.

Meanwhile, in both scrimmages this spring, Powell was named the defensive player of the day.

I realize those awards may seem trivial in your eyes, but there is no reason Muschamp would throw that kind of praise on Powell just to help his confidence or stroke a damaged ego. Powell was clearly making progress before the injury and whichever linebacker UF tries to plug in behind him is only set up to fail at arguably the most demanding position in the Gators’ defense.

MATT: “Best pass-rushing option” is a relative term.

Powell may have been Florida’s best option a season ago, but replacing a guy that picked up at least four of his six sacks thanks to excellent coverage on the back end will not be all that difficult. McCray racked up 7.5 tackles for loss in 2011, which ranked fourth on the team despite playing in at least three fewer games. He also tied for the team-high in quarterback hurries even though he played significantly fewer snaps than Powell or other comparable options.

But McCray will not be alone in supplementing the loss of Powell. While I have cautioned many times about relying on freshmen to produce in their first season, especially at a spot like defensive end or “the Buck,” Muschamp had the vision to foresee an issue like this one. And that’s why he heavily recruited on the line this past offseason.

Dante Fowler, Bryan Cox, Alex McCalister and Jonathan Bullard can all provide help up front in the wake of Powell’s loss, even if that wake is more similar to that of a kayak than a cruise ship.

JOHN: While those freshmen might have the physical attributes to make an impact in the future, the complexity of the Powell’s hybrid position is suited for only one linebacker on the roster this spring.

And that player is Powell.

Though he was a sophomore last season, he was still playing in his first college season in a 3-4 defense at an altogether different position that needed him to be both an effective blitzing end and coverage linebacker.

It takes a freak athlete like Powell to have any chance of becoming successful at the position and I don’t see any other Gators player with the ability to find it this season.

MATT: First of all, Florida doesn’t play a 3-4. The base defense is a 4-3, meaning Powell is responsible for playing with his hand on the ground on the majority of defensive snaps, like every other defensive end in the country.

Save all this technical mumbo jumbo. Powell never figured it out. He wasn’t the guy. And if you can’t figure out that the Gators don’t play a 3-4, then I’m not sure you’ll ever realize that Powell just isn’t the player you’re making him out to be.

Florida will be just fine this season.

Vote for the winner at alligatorSports.org.

Contact John Boothe at jboothe@alligator.org and Matt Watts at mwatts@alligator.org.

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