Will Muschamp believes the SEC is the nation's toughest league, and he minces no words when offering an explanation. "The biggest difference in our conference is the defensive line position," says Muschamp, the new coach at Florida. "Top to bottom in our league, you watch every week when you turn on an SEC film, there's going to be some dominating players up front."
Last year the Gators didn't dominate up front. They finished tied for 10th in the league in sacks, with 21. The popular off-season narrative in Gainesville was the arrival of new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who will try to fit players recruited to run the spread into his pro-style scheme. But the more relevant story line is on the other side of the ball: Can the defense—three of its linemen in particular—carry the program until the offense clicks?
Sophomore tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley and hybrid rush end--linebacker Ronald Powell were the highest-rated defensive trio ever to sign with Florida. In 2010 Rivals.com ranked Floyd, a 300-pound gap-stuffer, as the nation's best defensive tackle prospect. Easley, who has a blinding first step, was No. 2 on that list. And Powell was considered the nation's top overall prospect because of his agility, power and 6'4", 230-pound frame, which suggested he could add weight without sacrificing his 4.5 speed.
But as freshmen the trio combined for 52 tackles and one sack in three starts. "So much was expected, but most of it wasn't in our hands," Floyd says. "We were young. The coaches wanted people with experience... . We felt we should have been out there more. This year we're going to change all that."
Florida's defense will rely on the younger players more this season, but Muschamp, who will run the Gators' defense with coordinator--line coach Dan Quinn, expects those players to rely on more than their athleticism. "Instead of just playing the game, they need to start learning the game," the coach says. "They need to understand situations. They need to understand stances."
Floyd agrees. "Once we get that down, and there's no more thinking and we know what's coming, we should be completely unstoppable," he says.
3 Florida Atlantic
24 at Kentucky
8 at LSU
15 at Auburn
29 vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville)
12 at South Carolina
26 Florida State
One of the Gators' smartest players, he led all SEC freshmen in tackles in 2010.
Appeared to lose confidence in 2010, his first year as a starter. Can he get it back?
Coach Will Muschamp (1st year)
2010 Record 8--5 (4--4 in SEC)
Final AP Rank NR
Returning Starters 10
Offense 7, Defense 3
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KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE (FLOYD)
Floyd arrived in Gainesville as the country's top defensive tackle prospect according to one prominent scouting service, but fell short of his promise as a freshman.
BILL FRAKES (BRANTLEY)