Help Wanted

Scoring points won't be a problem, but the Gators will go places only if their defense returns to its '06 form
August 10, 2008

MIDDLE LINEBACKER Brandon Spikes looked ill after an embarrassing performance by the Florida defense in a 41--35 upset loss to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl last January. "Throughout this whole off-season, we've got a lot of growing up to do," Spikes said, as he stood outside the locker room. "We've got to grow up and man up. If we need plays to be made, people have to stand up."

Spikes, who played as a freshman on Florida's defense-first 2006 national-title team, is well aware of what is required of his unit in measuring up to an offense that has Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Tim Tebow, wideout Percy Harvin, tight end Cornelius Ingram and most of the line back. For one thing the defense has to vastly reduce the 25.5 points per game it yielded last fall—the most for a Florida team since 1971.

With nine first-time starters on defense in '07, the Gators had trouble rushing the QB and defending the pass. And in the Florida offense's hour of need—when a sore shoulder rendered Tebow a sitting duck in the pocket—Georgia's Knowshon Moreno broke loose for 188 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 42--30 win. Eight of those nine starters return to make things right. Have teammates taken Spikes's postbowl comments to heart? Sophomore cornerback Joe Haden believes so. "We're trying to make plays now," Haden says. "Last year we were trying to not mess up."

Adds Haden, "We've got a different swagger to us. We feel way more comfortable."

Perhaps the most obvious flaw that needed correcting was the defensive tackles' inability to push the pocket; in SEC play the Gators' sack total fell from 24 in 2006 to 15 in '07. Coach Urban Meyer counted down the days until the arrival of 6'2", 305-pound freshman Omar Hunter, a Parade All-America from Buford, Ga. If Hunter, redshirt freshman John Brown, sophomore Lawrence Marsh or freshman Matt Patchan can wreak havoc inside in the Gators' 4--3 scheme, Carlos Dunlap, a 6'7", 290-pound sophomore end with the wingspan of an NBA center, should be freed up on the outside. "Carlos," Meyer says, "is way ahead of the curve on the pass rush."

Spikes believes the defense will develop into a worthy complement to Florida's high-powered offense. "It's experience, confidence," he says. "We want to come out and play like we did two years ago."

"WE'VE GOT A DIFFERENT SWAGGER TO US," HADEN SAYS OF THE D.

CONFERENCE: SEC

COACH: Urban Meyer (4th year)

2007 RECORD: 9--4 (5--3 in SEC)

FINAL AP RANK: 13

RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 8, Defense 8

SCHEDULE

AUGUST
30 Hawaii

SEPTEMBER
6 Miami
20 at Tennessee
27 Mississippi

OCTOBER
4 at Arkansas
11 LSU
25 Kentucky

NOVEMBER
1 vs. Georgia in Jacksonville
8 at Vanderbilt
15 South Carolina
22 The Citadel
29 at Florida State

KEY GAME
Two years ago the Gators overcame a 10-point third-quarter deficit in Knoxville for a win that steeled them for a BCS title run. Before Florida can worry about LSU and Georgia and another BCS trophy, it has to turn back the Vols again.

WORTH NOTING

Since 1990 the Swamp has been the second-toughest place in Division I-A for a visitor to win. Florida's .893 winning percentage (100--12) trails only Florida State's (.895, 89-10-1).

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PHOTOSAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGESSpikes (51) is one of eight defenders who were first-time starters last year and are back with something to prove. PHOTO

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