GAINESVILLE — No one has actually told him so, but Florida linebacker Brandon Hicks believes the Gators' newest, and highly successful, defensive package was tailor-made for this week.
And this opponent: No. 1 Alabama.
"Me, personally, in my head, that's how I felt," Hicks said this week. "We didn't do the things we needed to do to succeed in (last year's SEC Championship Game, a 32-13 loss to the Crimson Tide). Now that that package is in, I feel that we're going to use everything fundamentally, every ounce of skill level, every ounce of energy we have coming into this game, to make us successful."
Hicks is referring to the Gators' new "heavy package," essentially a 5-2 defensive front that has yielded impressive results.
Florida (4-0, 2-0) is second in the SEC in rushing defense (No. 13 nationally), holding opponents to an average of 94 yards per game. In the past two weeks, the Gators have held the league's top rushers at the time, Tauren Poole of Tennessee and Derrick Locke of Kentucky, to 23 and 103 yards, respectively. Locke had 54 yards through three quarters before the Florida reserves entered the game.
"It's a package that allows us to best utilize our personnel," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
Essentially, the Gators bring five linemen across the front, with two linebackers moved onto the line, standing on the edge. Against Tennessee, the Gators inserted 6-foot-2, 309-pound Terron Sanders into the lineup, creating the front that shifted defensive tackle Jaye Howard (6-4, 302) to end, with defensive end Duke Lemmens moving outside to a hybrid linebacker position.
Also in that package, nose tackle Omar Hunter (6 feet, 307) and Lawrence Marsh (6-5, 290) are on the line, and defensive ends Ronald Powell and Justin Trattou shift to linebacker when necessary.
"We just want to get a bigger front seven in to stop the run," Hunter said. "In the SEC, everyone can run the ball, so we like to get a bigger line."
The Gators will put the package to the test against running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, who have combined for 664 rushing yards this season for Alabama (4-0, 1-0).
Ingram and Richardson combined for 195 yards against the Gators in last season's SEC Championship Game. Stopping the run is of primary concern.
"You've got some big cats on that defensive line right now," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "That doesn't mean you will be able to negate (the running game). It means it should be a good battle in college football and we are going to have to be ready."
The Gators had a similar package under former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, but it wasn't until Austin arrived that they began working hard on it last spring.
"I kind of like it," Hicks said, "because seeing that we're a lot smaller than other teams, we don't have to deal with them trying to stack a big lineman in there to try and knock us off the ball or try and run. … We have a big guy to actually stand him up and set the edge, and that way we can come downhill and hit the ball as fast as we possibly can.
"Basically, we use our own speed to our advantage to kill the run. And that package is great for us (when facing) teams that like to run."
But Meyer realizes an element of danger accompanies the package against the Tide.
"You're now leaving your corner on an island with the first receiver that's going to be picked in the NFL draft (junior Julio Jones)," Meyer said.
Sophomore cornerback Jeremy Brown (5-10, 184) knows what a challenge it will be facing Jones (6-4, 222).
"This is a big one," Brown said. "Julio is almost a perfect receiver. He's physical, tall, big. So that's something that we're really going to have to focus on, stopping him. You just break down film, use technique, and you'll be pretty successful.
"But they are all good. That's probably something that's different from other teams. (Alabama has) three or four receivers who could start almost anywhere in the country. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are all big-time playmakers, and the quarterback (Greg McElroy) does a good job of getting them all the ball."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]