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Improved defense a very pleasant surprise for Gators

Janoris Jenkins, returning an interception against Tennessee, 
is making a bid to start on a defense that has allowed 19 points.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Janoris Jenkins, returning an interception against Tennessee, is making a bid to start on a defense that has allowed 19 points.

GAINESVILLE — It's still early, but count Florida coach Urban Meyer among those who have been pleasantly caught off-guard by how well the defense has played this season.

Although the consensus was that a successful season hinged on a much-improved offense, the fact remains that 14 of 22 players on the two-deep roster on defense are freshmen and sophomores.

But Florida has allowed an average of about 6.5 points in a 3-0 start, tied for second nationally, and has given up just 19 total points — the best defensive start for UF since 1988 (15 points through three games).

The Gators have not allowed a rushing play of longer than 16 yards, and the longest pass has been 26 yards.

"It's a surprise," Meyer said. "The chemistry on defense now is where you want it. It's still early, though. We have faced three young quarterbacks, but we have faced some tremendous running backs. … We've played a good run defense so far. I don't know if we have been challenged by the pass yet. That's what I am anxious to see."

A formidable test could come this week. Mississippi QB Jevan Snead, who at one time orally committed to Florida before UF's Tim Tebow did, has the third-best passing average in the SEC (211 yards per game). Snead is third in the league in total offense.

Kickoff set: The Oct. 4 Florida at Arkansas game will kick off at 12:30 p.m. and be televised by Raycom (Ch. 38).

James honored: Junior WR/return specialist Brandon James was named SEC special teams player of the week. James accounted for 144 return yards, including a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 52-yard kickoff return that set up Florida's first touchdown. He is the only player in the nation to return two punts for a touchdown this season.

Meanwhile, the success of the special teams — highlighted by James — has more big-name players offering to join the unit, which gets so much attention from Meyer that seemingly everybody wants to be a part of it.

"Starters have been asking to play on special teams for two years now," Tebow said. "I've asked to play on special teams, but I only made it on hands team my freshman year. Guys ask all the time to have a chance to play special teams."

LSU RB Charles Scott was the SEC offensive player of the week. Vanderbilt S Ryan Hamilton won defensive honors.

Job opening: After registering two solo tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Tennessee, freshman CB Janoris Jenkins is officially battling for a starting job.

"It's going to be a game-time decision," Meyer said.

Meyer said Jenkins outperformed Wondy Pierre-Louis on Saturday, and the two will compete for starting time this week.

DE Justin Trattou and DE Carlos Dunlap are battling each other for starting time.

A solid GAME: RB Emmanuel Moody got his first significant playing time Saturday and led UF rushers with nine carries for 55 yards, 6.1 yards per carry.

"It felt good just to be on the field and to finally play in the SEC," Moody said Monday.

He entered the season with high expectations, but his absence in the Miami game called into question whether he would have as big a role in the offense as expected.

"Moody didn't play a ton of plays but was very productive when he was in there," Meyer said.

Injury update: Florida is in fairly good shape with injuries, but two key players are hurting and won't practice until at least Wednesday. LB Ryan Stamper sprained his ankle but continued to play. And DE Jermaine Cunningham has a hyper-extended knee. Both are probable.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Improved defense a very pleasant surprise for Gators 09/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:50pm]
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