GAINESVILLE — There was a time when the comments would have been taken as criticism, and Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap most likely would not have responded well. In fact, he probably would have gotten angry.
But when ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said during last weekend's College GameDay broadcast in Baton Rouge, La., that Florida's defense, particularly Dunlap and linebacker Brandon Spikes, needed to step up their game, Dunlap didn't take offense. Instead, he wanted to prove that he and his teammates could meet the challenge. Led by Spikes and Dunlap, the top-ranked Gators held then-No. 4 LSU to three points and 162 yards of offense in their 13-3 win.
"We knew we had to go step up and meet the expectations because we got called out on TV," said Dunlap, the MVP of last season's BCS title game.
"We're pretty confident in what we can do, but we see the greatness that we can still accomplish, even though we are still making mistakes. So it's a humbling experience, a motivation to correct the things that you do so you can be even a better defense."
And therein lies the difference between the Dunlap of old and now. The 20-year-old junior from North Charleston, S.C., has gone from being a player with great potential who didn't work hard enough to a team leader who is never satisfied, even when things are going well.
"He is much, much improved right now from any time last year," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "He's working harder. His attitude is better. His practice habits are better. I'm really proud of him."
Today, Dunlap and his teammates put their nationally ranked defense on display against an Arkansas offense that coach Urban Meyer believes may be the toughest the unbeaten Gators have faced.
Florida is No. 1 nationally in four defensive categories: pass efficiency (78.32 rating), total defense (202.6 yards per game allowed), scoring defense (6.40 points per game) and pass defense (115.20 yards). Arkansas' passing offense is No. 1 in the SEC (318.2 yards). The Razorbacks also lead the league in passing touchdowns (15), and Florida has the SEC's best defense in touchdowns allowed (two).
"Arkansas has got a real good offense, so this is just like calling us out itself, just by the way they have been playing," said Dunlap, 6 feet 6, 290 pounds, who has 13 tackles and knows he must continue to improve. "That's what we love, coming together against a team that could be possibly one of the greatest offenses (UF will face). For us to be a great defense, you have to stop one of the best offenses."
The defense entered the season with talk of trying to rank among the best ever, but four games in, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong wasn't happy. So he brought up the past to help dictate the future.
"Our turning point was Tennessee," Dunlap said. "Coach Strong and (assistants) took us in the meeting room after the Tennessee game and got extra film, and we watched how we played last year and compared it to this year. We realized that we weren't playing as well as we did last year, and yet we were still doing well. … You talk about it all day, but once you see it, it's more effective. … It just helped motivate us to get it back right."
They hope to remain there.
"It still can (get better)," junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "We realize … we still haven't really played great, besides LSU. We've played good, but when we look at the film, we just see a whole lot of spots we can improve on."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389. Check her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.