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Gators defense young and eager

Published Sep. 29, 2005

The new players on Florida's defense don't have a long list of awards to their credit. No gaudy statistics. No catchy nicknames. But they do have one thing in common:


Coming off a year in which star-studded players gave Florida's defense national recognition, a crew of no-name backups is eager for its shot in the starting lineup _ and in the spotlight.

"It's a big challenge for us and it's motivating us a lot that people don't know our names," said linebacker Keith Kelsey, one of only two seniors expected to start on defense when the Gators open Sept. 4 against Western Michigan. "It's brought us together as a team. It's our chance to make an impression."

Florida's defense returns just one player with more than four career starts, cornerback Bennie Alexander, who started six games last season as a freshman. Of the 11 projected starters, seven are sophomores, including the entire secondary.

"We have to make names for ourselves," sophomore tackle Gerard Warren said. "We're all out there to make a name for this defense and make a name for this team."

Last year, Florida's veteran defense made quite a dent in the national rankings: ninth in total defense (286.6 yards per games), fourth in rushing defense (90.7 yards), seventh in pass efficiency defense (100.45 rating) and eighth in scoring defense (14.1 points).

Five players _ safety Tony George, tackle Reggie McGrew and linebackers Jevon Kearse, Johnny Rutledge and Mike Peterson _ were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, and three signed free-agent contracts. The obvious assumption is that the Gators talent pool is a little on the dry side.

The no-names say no way.

"This is a national program, there is always going to be talent here," said sophomore Lester Norwood, the projected starter at free safety.

"Just because the next man moved on and his name was out there doesn't mean the person that's coming in after him is less talented. It's just that that person hasn't had a chance to put his name out there. This year, everyone is going to get that chance."

Including the man calling the plays. First-year defensive coordinator Jon Hoke replaces fan favorite Bob Stoops, whose aggressive scheme helped Florida win the 1996 national championship. Hoke's style is similar, with a few twists.

"Just sitting there watching it, you probably won't see that big of a difference," said Hoke, who did most of the play-calling as defensive backs coach at Missouri. "The biggest difference is you'll probably see more of an expanded blitz package. You want to dictate tempo to the offense."

What this year's defense lacks in experience, it will attempt to make up for with youthful exuberance. And Hoke, with a more outgoing personality than Stoops, will lead the charge.

"I love Coach Hoke," sophomore linebacker Andra Davis said. "He's emotional with us. He's real excitable. That's fun. We have to be a young attacking style defense. No one is giving us respect, so we have to earn it."

Despite its obvious talent, last season's defense disappointed coach Steve Spurrier because it did not produce a touchdown after scoring eight in the previous two seasons, including a school-record six in 1996. Last season, Missouri's defense scored in five straight games.

"We had to do things like that at Missouri to win," Hoke said. "We practiced creating turnovers and scoring on defense and blocking kicks. It became a mind-set and it's contagious. Steve knows the background. He wants to make sure he wins convincingly, and that's a way to get an edge on people."

Spurrier also likes Hoke's commitment to confusion _ for the opposing offense. Florida's defense under Stoops played largely the bump-and-run style. Hoke will switch from man to zone coverage in a single series.

"I like the idea that he mixes up the coverages more," Spurrier said. "If you play bump-and-run every down, offenses are smart enough to figure out a play that's got some chance against every defense. We'll play up tight and play off, mix it up. I'm not concerned about our defense."

And that's a strong vote of confidence for a group of players united mainly by inexperience.

"I like coming in this year with people saying we have the no-name defense or we're the underdog," Norwood said. "Every time you've got an underdog, you've got a team out there trying to prove a point. We're coming out there hungrier than ever."

What a defensive difference a year makes

1998 starter Where they are now 1999 starter Yr.

DE Willie Cohens free agent, Pats Derrick Chambers Jr.

DE Tim Beauchamp free agent, Browns Alex Brown So.

DT Reggie McGrew 1st-round pick, 49ers Gerard Warren So.

DT Ed Chester undrafted (injury) Buck Gurley Jr.

LB Jevon Kearse 1st-round pick, Titans Eugene McCaslin Sr.

LB Johnny Rutledge 2nd-round pick Cards Andra Davis So.

LB Mike Peterson 2nd-round pick Colts Keith Kelsey Sr.

SS Rod Graddy suspended Marquand Manuel So.

FS Teako Brown free agent, Saints Lester Norwood So.

CB Tony George 3rd-round pick, Pats Bennie Alexander So.

CB Bennie Alexander still a UF starter Robert Cromartie So.

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