When linebacker A.J. Jones started the 2007 season opener as a redshirt freshman, he knew that he and most of his fellow first-time starters, nine in all, weren't ready. "We were thrust out there in front of 90,000 and had to play," recalls Jones, now a senior.
Three years later the Gators are in a similar predicament. Gone are quarterback Tim Tebow, offensive guard Maurkice Pouncey, cornerback Joe Haden, defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Brandon Spikes—all picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft—and three other starters from a team that went 26--2 over the last two seasons and won the national championship in 2008. But unlike in '07, Florida now has a program that will allow the team to reload instead of rebuild. "When we lost that whole group [after '06], we knew we were getting ready for a tough go," says coach Urban Meyer, whose team is (for a change) not the favorite to win the SEC. "Now we've got some really, really good players. They may not be the marquee-name guys [yet], but hopefully they'll become that."
One of those players is senior Ahmad Black. A 5' 9", 190-pound strong safety who compensates for his relative lack of size and speed with instincts, Black started all 14 games as a sophomore in 2008 and made a critical interception in the Gators' victory over Oklahoma in the BCS championship game. Although he started all but one game in '09, he spent every day at practice fighting off the highly recruited Will Hill. "It's really competitive now," says Black. "That's what makes our team that much better. Positions are not given."
The performance of Black and Hill, who'll play free safety, will be critical if the defense, which ranked fourth in the country last year in scoring (12.4) and total yardage (252.4) but lost seven starters, is to avoid a drop-off. Equally important will be the play of Jones and fellow linebacker Brandon Hicks, two seniors who are running with the first team but weren't able to hold on to their starting jobs before. "They've played bits and pieces," Hill says. "They've had spurts their entire careers. Now that they're seniors, I think they're going to have a huge year."
COACH Urban Meyer (6th year)
2009 RECORD 13--1 (8--0 in SEC)
FINAL AP RANK 3
RETURNING STARTERS 9
Offense 5, Defense 4
4 Miami (Ohio)
11 South Florida
18 at Tennessee
2 at Alabama
16 Mississippi St.
30 Georgia (in Jacksonville)
6 at Vanderbilt
13 South Carolina
20 Appalachian State
27 at Florida State
It will be hard to replace Tim Tebow, but Brantley, a highly recruited pocket passer, has the tools to succeed.
The team's top cover corner has locked down receivers since he arrived on campus.
A second-team All-America at guard in '09, Pouncey slides over to the spot vacated by his twin brother, Maurkice.
DOUGLAS JONES/US PRESSWIRE (BLACK)
Black is back to anchor a deep secondary, but the Gators will have to replace seven starters from one of the nation's best defenses.