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Florida's defense knows it has a lot to prove

GAINESVILLE — The coffers were completely empty.

Shortly after Florida's 41-35 loss to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl in January, a game that solidified Florida's standing as one of the nation's worst defenses, secondary coach Chuck Heater met with his young players and delivered a message: Based on the way you've played, you've got a bank account with nothing in it.

"We didn't do much. There was not much success," Heater said this week. "There wasn't much you could draw upon. To me, it was a matter of trying to find an edge and get back to work."

And so the coaching staff issued the challenge. Throughout the spring, the spring game and the long, arduous offseason, the Florida defense, particularly its secondary, worked. And all along, the players heard the talk — from fans, analysts and the preseason magazines.

The defense was the weak link.

When they walked onto Florida Field on Saturday afternoon, the Gators weren't just playing for a victory over Hawaii. They were playing for pride.

"We got tired of … all the talk, so we went out there and worked hard," sophomore safety Ahmad Black said. "It kind of irritated us a bit. So we worked hard, and we wanted to go out that first game and show everybody we weren't the weak link."

In the season opener, the Gators held Hawaii to 89 yards over the final three quarters, forced six turnovers, had four sacks and ran back two interceptions for touchdowns.

"We just had so much stuff to prove," sophomore defensive back Joe Haden said. "We needed to show how much hard work we put in."

With 14 of the 22 players on the Gators' two-deep depth chart freshmen and sophomores, rebuilding will take time — and more work. Heater said this week there's one penny in the bank.

"It's just one game," he said.

Last season, UF was 98th among 119 Division I-A teams in pass defense, giving up 258.5 yards per game, and 41st in total defense (but seventh in the SEC) at 361.8 per game. The players agree they have a long way to go.

"You have to understand — and this is not making excuses — but we had a lot of young guys out there last season," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "Joe Haden had never played safety before. We had freshmen who spent the year trying to adjust to the college game, thinking instead of just playing. And frankly we just didn't play very well.

"We've preached since the Michigan game that the only way we're going to win is with great defense and the only way we're going to win is you guys are going to have to play a lot better than what you played last year. And I think they are beginning to understand that."

Enter Miami. After facing a pass-oriented Hawaii team, the No. 5 Gators must shift gears and prepare for a Hurricanes squad they expect to try to dominate with their running game.

"They've got size. They've got height. They've got girth and long arms, so we've got to be the most physical defensive line that we've had here at Florida in a long time," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "They are a Miami team with all kinds of speed and tremendous backs. We're going to have to be at our best to win this game."

UF also is well-aware that it will face a freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start, former Plant High star Robert Mavre. The Gators insist it won't make them overconfident.

"We still have to make plays," said safety Major Wright, a native of Miramar. "We're still the ones with something to prove."

To everyone, including themselves.

"Basically, a lot of people are saying that we have arrived, and we haven't," Black said. "We have to keep working week after week until we get to where we want to be."

And how will they know when the account is full again?

"When we have the trophy in our hands," Black said with a smile. "Then you'll know."

Antonya English can be reached at

Florida's defense knows it has a lot to prove 09/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:02pm]
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