2008 Florida Preview - Defense
Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham
Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham
Posted Apr 23, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Florida Gator Defense

Florida Gators

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Florida Preview | 2008 Florida Offense
- 2008 Florida Defense
| 2008 Florida Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Florida Preview
| 2006 CFN Florida Preview 

What you need to know:
Florida weathered the storm of last year when it needed to replace nine starters. The pass defense was abysmal, and while the run defense was tenth in the nation and first in the SEC, that's partly because everyone was stretching out the passing game legs on the green secondary. Now the defensive backfield should be far better as corners Wondy Pierre-Louis and Joe Haden should be much better, and FS Major Wright could grow into an all-star. The problem is the secondary depth; there isn't much, especially at safety. That, along with the potential for disaster at tackle with two true freshmen, Omar Hunter and Matt Patchan, needing to be stars, could be the difference between a good season and a potential national championship. Brandon Spikes leads a tremendous linebacking corps and the ends, especially rising star Carlos Dunlap, will be phenomenal.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Brandon Spikes, 131
Sacks: Jermaine Cunningham, 6.5
Interceptions: Wondy Pierre-Louis, 2

Star of the defense: Junior LB Brandon Spikes
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior NT Troy Epps
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Carlos Dunlap
Best pro prospect: Spikes
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Spikes, 2) DE Jermaine Cunningham 3) CB Joe Haden
Strength of the defense: Defensive end, linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Tackle, safety depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: While much might be made out of the loss of Derrick Harvey, the team's leading pass rusher, his replacement could be even better. 6-6, 290-pound sophomore Carlos Dunlap went from being a decent reserve making seven tackles and a sack to a jaw-dropping speed rusher this off-season. Unstoppable at times in spring ball, he has the combination of quickness to go along with his size to give the line a player to revolve the pass rush around. He has NFL millionaire written all over him if he can keep progressing.

Back on the other side is junior Jermaine Cunningham, a 6-3, 241-pound athlete who took over for Jarvis Moss and blossomed on the other side of Derrick Harvey making 64 tackles (tied for fourth most on the team), to go along with 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. More than just a pass rushing specialist, he's an all-around playmaker who was better than Harvey, but never got the credit or attention. Now he'll have to prove he can shine with the attention focused on him, but he'll have Dunlap to help on the other side.

It's not going out on much of a limb to project that Florida's season will revolve around two true freshman Omar Hunter on the inside. The 6-0, 322-pound superstar prospect made 93 tackles as a senior as he led his Buford High team to the Georgia state title. He has the size, the quickness to get into the backfield, and the bulk the Gator line is missing. The coaching staff is counting on him to step in and shine from day one this fall.

6-0, 276-pound JUCO transfer Troy Epps will be pushed into a starting role of some sort sooner than later. While Hunter is an ideal nose tackle, that's where Epps might end up if he doesn't become a backup early on. He got to school early and showed right away that he's ready to be a regular on the inside, and while he has tremendous quickness and a great first step when it comes to getting into the backfield, he's not an elite talent.

Projected Top Reserves: Just how quickly can Matt Patchan heal up? The true freshman is listed as the starting tackle, but he has to recover from a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He was shot while running away from a situation, and while he's expected to make a full recovery, he'll need some time to get back to 100%. The 6-6, 238-pounder was a tremendous high school offensive lineman before switching to the defensive side this spring. If he's fine, he'll start.

Sophomore Justin Trattou is one of the team's most versatile defensive linemen having seen time at both end and tackle as a true freshman. He came up with 20 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss as he grew into an excellent all-around defensive force. He'll work behind Dunlap on one side, but he could be moved to tackle from time to time to provide a little depth.

Part end and part tackle, the 6-4, 285-pound Lawrence Marsh played a backup role on the end last season making five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. A great athlete for his size, the sophomore needs to start doing more to provide some help on the inside. He'll start out on the nose.

Watch Out For ... Dunlap. Florida always finds talented ends, but the combination of size and speed makes Dunlap special. He could be the SEC's breakout player of the year.
Ends. Is it possible for the line to be even better now even though Harvey is gone? If Cunningham grows into more of a star and if Dunlap plays as well as expected, yes. Having a backup like Trattou doesn't hurt.
Tackles. It's never, ever a plus, even at a place like Florida, to count on two true freshmen to start and play big roles. Hunter didn't even participate in spring ball and Patchan has bigger problems trying to get over his gunshot wound. There could be an open casting call for beefy players for the inside.
Outlook: The tackles are going to be a major concern. Sound familiar? That was the same issue going into last year, and Florida finished tenth in the nation and first in the SEC in run defense. Somehow, someway, everything will be fine, and if the true freshmen are the real deal, then the line could actually be one of the team's strengths. Alright, so that's pushing it, but the production should be there with a little bit of time. The ends will be terrific; Dunlap and Cunningham will grow into a special tandem.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: It's salary drive time for junior Brandon Spikes, one of the five best pro linebacking prospects in college football and a special all-around leader for the front seven. The 6-3, 245-pound tackling machine cleaned up everything for the SEC's top run defense with 131 stops and a whopping 16.5 tackles for loss. Always around the ball, he recovered three fumbles and broke up seven passes. Quick like an outside linebacker with the strength of a defensive end, he'll do it all. 

A spot starter in his first season, sophomore A.J. Jones will once again main the strongside after making 36 tackles, a sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss. While he's small for the position at 6-1 and 213 pounds, he's a sure tackles who plays bigger than his size. With his speed, quickness and athleticism, he could be a weakside linebacker if needed and will be sent into the backfield early and often.

6-0, 211-pound junior Dustin Doe has been a regular for the last three years and finished second on the team with 85 tackles and five tackles for loss. Even though he's not all that big, he's a good hitter and a phenomenal athlete who flies all over the field and is in on just about every play. His one issues is in pass coverage; he didn't do enough when the ball was in the air.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Ryan Stamper was one of the team's only reserves worthy of note going into last season, and he came through making 21 tackles with two sacks and four tackles for loss playing in the middle behind Spikes. He has a shoulder problem he needs to get over, but he'll once again be one of the team's key backups.

Lorenzo Edwards, originally considered a safety, was expected to see time right away as a true freshman, but he was able to redshirt and now should be a star for the next four years. Able to play either outside spot, he's a bigger option on the strongside than Jones at 6-2 and 234  pounds. If needed, he has the tremendous quickness to play on the weakside if needed.

Even though 6-2, 207-pound sophomore Brandon Hicks is built more like a safety, he's a tough weakside linebacker who came up with 13 tackles and two broken up passes as a true freshman. A strong special teamer as well as a good defender, he was one of the stars of spring ball and will be a strong reserve behind Doe.

Watch Out For ... Hicks and Edwards. It'll be tough to crack the starting lineup on the outside with Jones and Doe the established veterans, but there aren't any worries if there are injury problems. Edwards has all-star written all over him, while Hicks should be a fantastic all-around playmaker with more playing time.
Depth. Considering there was almost no starting experience whatsoever going into last year, and even less depth to feel comfortable about, things look positively wonderful going into this year. While there's a big drop-off in the middle from Spikes to Stamper, the second team could step in and the defense would be just fine.
Pass coverage. It's hard to complain too much considering the linebackers had to work so much on stopping the run last season, but there wasn't nearly enough production against the pass. With all the speed and athleticism on the outside, the secondary should get more help.
Outlook: The young, talented group came together faster than anyone could've hoped for, and now it should be tremendous. Spikes is an All-American to work around, while Jones and Doe are underappreciated factors on the outside. The depth is there to provide even more of a rotation, and the talent is back to level it was at when Brandon Siler and Earl Everett where dominating.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: A nightmare throughout last year, the corner situation should be far, far better with the emergence of 5-11, 180-pound sophomore Joe Haden as an improved veteran on one side. Thrown to the wolves as a true freshman, Haden struggled throughout the year despite leading the team with 12 broken up passes to go along with an interception and 63 tackles. A star dual-threat Maryland high school quarterback with warp speed and NFL upside, he has the talent to grow into a night-and-day better performer.

On the other side will once again be Wondy Pierre-Louis, a 6-0, 182-pound junior who was supposed to be the team's nickel back and ended up starting every game making 30 tackles with two interceptions and three broken up passes. A phenomenal athlete, he has the ability to do far more and be more of a shut-down defender.

Another young starter who should be far better in year two is 6-0, 194-pound sophomore free safety Major Wright, who took over the starting job early last year and finished third on the team with 67 tackles. While he's a huge hitter and great against the run, he didn't do enough to help out in pass coverage and finished with just one interception and two broken up passes. All he needs is experience. In time, he'll be special.

Taking over for Tony Joiner at strong safety will be junior Dorian Munroe after making 28 tackles and breaking up five passes as a key reserve. While he has the speed to play free safety, and while he's a bit small at 5-9 and 177 pounds, he's a smart, fast athlete who has been strong on the special teams.

Projected Top Reserves: Working at corner behind Haden is 5-10, 176-pound junior Markihe Anderson after making 14 tackles and a pick as a reserve and spot starter. Limited by a sprained knee, he wasn't able to help the sinking ship early in the year. With tremendous quickness and good upside, he has the potential to blossom into a fantastic man defender with a little more work.

Looking to make an immediate impact is true freshman Jeremy Brown playing behind Pierre-Louis. While he's not all that big at a thin 5-10 and 163 pounds, he's a dangerous all-around playmaker who was a star receiver as well as a corner. His blinding quickness should make him an interesting option.

The main safety reserve will be 5-9, 177-pound sophomore Ahmad Black at strong safety. He saw a little bit of time as a corner and finished with seven tackles, but he needs to shine in the rotation early on. If he's not good, there will be some patching needing to be done with the secondary depth.

Watch Out For ... a vast improvement. It's not like things can be any worse after finishing last in the SEC in pass defense. However, that was expected with all the major replacements needed from the national title team. Haden, Wright and Pierre-Louis are major-league athletes who now know what they're doing.
Cornerback. Yes Haden and Pierre-Louis can play. They showed off better skills and more ability this spring, and Anderson is a nice player to fold into the mix. They'll still give up some big plays, but they should be more consistently good.
Safety depth. Wright and Munroe will be great against the run and better against the pass, but they need to stay on the field as long as possible until a few backup options can come through. At the moment, outside of Black, the depth is nearly non-existent.
Outlook: While it's convenient to blame the young secondary for the reason why Florida didn't play for the SEC title and lost four games, the reality was that the pass defense was really only a big problem in the loss to Michigan. It wasn't exactly tight against Georgia, and Auburn's Brandon Cox threw for 227 yards, but the Gators won most of the games when they were bombed on. However, the big concern is that things didn't improve as the season went on. All the new players should've gotten better, and they didn't. Now the hope is for the strides made this spring by Haden and Wright to translate into more production. The depth is a huge issue; it wasn't developed last year.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Running back Brandon James is one of the nation's best all-around return men averaging 28 yards per kickoff return and 18.1 yards per punt return. Teams will try to stay away from him at all costs.

The kicking game goes from serviceable to interesting with true freshman Caleb Sturgis taking over for Joey Ijjas, who hit ten of 15 shots but didn't have much in the way of range. That's not a problem for the big-legged Sturgis, but he'll have to prove he can handle the pressure early on. Senior Jonathan Phillips has been around for a while and could step in if Sturgis is a disaster.

The Gators had the SEC's best punting game thanks to Chas Henry, a true sophomore who only average 39.3 yards per boot, but put 14 kicks inside the 20, force 19 fair catches, and almost never allowed a return. Only five of his 37 kicks were returned.

Watch Out For ... Sturgis to be a four-year fixture. He has the talent and the potential to be the best kicker Florida has had in a long, long time. While he's the unknown going into the season, if he can just be solid from 35 yards and in and hit the occasional bomb, the coaching staff will take it. After all, he's a true freshman.
James. He's one of the nation's most explosive kick returners and a weapon who always gives the offense good field position. Only 5-6, he's an annoyingly hard target to find and hit.
Kickoff coverage. This could change considering Sturgis has a good leg and should push the ball deeper than Ijjis did, but the coverage team has to be better after allowing 21.7 yards per return.
Outlook: The Gators could have the best special teams in the SEC if Sturgis is decent. Henry is great in his role and James is special. If Sturgis can just hit 75% of his field goals, the kicking situation will be the best it's been in the Meyer era.