GAINESVILLE — Just about a week ago Florida senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley held an impromptu meeting with his teammates that now serves as daily motivation.
"He actually stood up and spoke in front of us and just told us to cherish every moment on the field," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "And that said a lot to us because I'm pretty sure he didn't think on a Tuesday practice that would be his last Gator game. It meant a lot to us."
Later that same day, Easley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that ended his Florida career. The injury left an emotional void that might not be filled this season, but it has brought the defense closer for a season now dedicated to him.
"We knew this was Easley's last year," redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor said. "It's a sad way to go out like that. And to see what he was doing on the field. … Knowing that it was going to be his last year and the way it happened, it was detrimental. But playing for him and doing it the right way by him is what we're going to do. We're going to have to go on for him."
The Gators lead the SEC in eight statistical categories, including total defense (202.5 yards per game). They have allowed just eight third-down conversions in 45 attempts. But beginning tonight, the Gators begin a stretch that will test their mettle and provide a true sense of just how good they really are, coach Will Muschamp said.
"Starting with Arkansas, we haven't faced anybody that's had the physicality that they're going to play with on the offensive line, the quality of backs or the matchups outside," Muschamp said. "We need to play well on the edges, we're going to need to tackle well and play blocks."
Without Easley, the Gators have made adjustments, not wholesale changes.
"Our scheme hasn't changed at all," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.
Linebacker-defensive end Dante Fowler, who benefited from the double teams Easley faced, is adjusting to a new role where the sophomore out of St. Petersburg Lakewood High expects to be targeted more.
"We're just trying to play with a big chip on our shoulder, go out there and prove to people that we are still good (without Easley)," Fowler said.
Jonathan Bullard has moved from defensive end to tackle — last week he had three tackles and 1½ sacks — although he admits it's not his natural position.
"It's not the easiest thing to do, but it's what I've got to do," he said. "At the end spot, you've usually got an outside shoulder free unless you're lined up … with the tight end, but you usually don't go against two 300- pounders as much as you do on the inside. It's just something you've got to work on and I've got to get better at."
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the Gators are difficult to match up against.
"Across the board up front they use their hands well," Bielema said. "They're powerful. Their linebackers run. I think they're more than capable in the back end, but they're trying to allow their front to be a little more physical and trust them to protect it behind them. It's an imposing group. You can see why they play great defense."
Florida expects Arkansas to bring a physical, downhill running game led by freshman back Alex Collins, who is averaging 119.4 yards. Collins has four 100-yard games.
"It's really remarkable," Durkin said. "His numbers speak for themselves. Their style, what they do on offense, really fits him well. He's the type of back they want in that offense. It's a big challenge for us."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.