Building from the middle out

For Florida to build a strong defense, it starts in the middle. It’s how the coaches recruit and how they coach on the field. This fall, the veterans in the middle of the Florida defense has the coaches optimistic.

It starts with the defensive tackles. Even if seniors Darious Cummings and Leon Orr aren’t household names at the position, they’re veterans that have been through the grind of the Southeastern Conference schedule. They were thrown into the fire last season when Dominique Easley was lost for the year, and after an entire offseason to prepare as starters, they’re ready for the fall.

The linebacker position has four players the coaches trust the most, and three of them have been through at least three seasons. Sophomore Jarrad Davis, who looked like the most productive linebacker on the team at the end of last season, is the only one without two full seasons under his belt.

The safety spot got a boost with a big fall camp from sophomore Keanu Neal. Senior Jabari Gorman, who serves as the leader in the secondary, has been an important piece of the defensive backfield off the bench in recent years but has the experience to step into a starting role this fall.

As more depth develops, the feeling about the middle of the defense will only improve.

“That's got to be the strength of your defense, no doubt,” Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “You look at where we're at from there, I feel really good about that. I think at our inside linebacker position, up front defensive line, we're really strong right there. Then all the way up through the middle. Keanu Neal's had an unbelievable camp at safety. With Jabari (Gorman) and Marcus (Maye) and some other guys we're rolling in there, I feel good about that."

The middle of the defense has always been a priority for this coaching staff. It’s why they put so much on the middle linebackers and safeties to make sure the entire defense is lined up properly, and if they aren’t, it’s up to those players to correct it. Florida coach Will Muschamp, a former safety, demands it that way.

If a player can’t handle the communication necessary from the middle of the field, then they won’t be on the field for long.

“It might be an old coaches' saying, but you've got to be good from the middle out,” Durkin said. “That's the foundation of your defense. If you're not solid, then what do you have? I think when you talk about pressing the pocket in the pass-rush game, talk about the run game, you need to be solid up front so you're controlling the line of scrimmage.

“You look at our conference, our league, if you're not good at the line of scrimmage and up the middle, you're going to have issues all year long. That's where we always try to build our defense, and I think we've done a good job of that."

YOUNG LINEMEN READY TO PLAY: One of the most important story lines of fall camp is the development of depth on the defensive line. Behind Cummings and Orr, Florida needed more depth. The second-year linemen heard the call for it and responded, as Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie have all become trusted players. Alex McCalister is providing more depth at defensive end.

What they do on the practice field only means so much. On Saturday, they have a chance to start making their impact felt on the field and earn more snaps.

“We’re going to be rotating guys from the start. If you’ve watched us week one, week 12, whatever it is, the guys that have all earned the right and the trust to go out there and play, we’re going to rotate and play. Every guy is a little different. That might mean 10 snaps total in the game. That might mean 15, 20 and so on. I think that’s important for development. I think we recruit guys here that are high-level players. We’re not recruiting to come in and watch. We’re recruiting to come play.

“They understand that and they know they need that opportunity and then it’s what you do with that opportunity. So you get 10, 12 snaps in this game but do great with them, maybe that turns into 15, 20 the next game and so on. So that’s going to happen at all spots and that’s our plan going into it.”

MAYE DAY-TO-DAY: Durkin reiterated that safety/nickel Marcus Maye (hamstring) remains day-to-day for Saturday’s game against Idaho. Will Muschamp sounded optimistic on Wednesday, but if Maye isn’t able to play, the Gators will move players around.

Brian Poole could slide in and start at the nickel position, and Jabari Gorman and even Vernon Hargreaves III have taken reps at the nickel.

“Whether (Maye) is playing or not, we're going to use several of those combinations,” Durkin said.

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