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Gators tracking new secondary's progress

One year removed from replacing its entire front seven, Florida opened this season with four new starters in its secondary and one promise from coach Ron Zook: The defense would improve as the season progressed.

From a passing Eastern Michigan team that was supposed to primarily run to Tennessee's two-quarterback system to an option-oriented Kentucky, the Gators have faced a variety of offenses.

As a result, their defense, particularly the secondary, has needed to improve swiftly.

"We're not so young anymore," secondary coach Dan Disch said. "We have seen a lot of different things each week, and if we can continue to learn from our mistakes, then we've got a chance. You've got to learn on the run.

"They are adjusting and playing, but they can't call themselves young anymore. I'm excited about their improvement. Our goal is to get better every day."

The true test of how much better they are comes Saturday.

Enter Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones.

At 6 feet 6, 237 pounds, the junior is, arguably, the most versatile quarterback the Gators will face this season and easily their toughest test. Jones is the only returning starter on the Razorbacks' offense and has led them to a 3-1 start. Recently, his name has been mentioned among Heisman candidates.

"I'm partial, but I've been saying that for a long time. Matt does belong in the Heisman conversation," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "He always talks about team and puts team first. But I just look around at other people whose names get mentioned, and I know what they do for their teams, and I know what Matt does for our team.

"He's a true difference maker, and if you took every play, per yards, per play, touchdown passes and runs and all these things, I think you see he deserves that (mention)."

In four games, Jones has passed for 838 yards and rushed for 245 (second in SEC history at 7.4 yards per play). He needs just 123 yards to become the SEC's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks.

"He's probably the most talented, athletic quarterback that we will face this year," senior linebacker Travis Harris said. "You have to be aware of his abilities. It's rare to come across a quarterback like that.

"He's a tall guy, and he's fast, too. He doesn't look as fast on film as he does in person because he's got those long legs and long strides. He's someone that we're going to have to stop."

Making adjustments and getting key stops has been a work in progress for Florida's inexperienced secondary, which includes redshirt sophomore safety Terrence Holmes, sophomore cornerback Dee Webb, senior cornerback Reynaldo Hill and redshirt junior safety Jarvis Herring, who entered the season with a combined one start, Hill in January's Outback Bowl.

Eastern Michigan was expected to pose a threat with its running game, but quarterback Matt Bohnet went 19-of-36 for 201 yards.

After struggling early against Tennessee's running game, Florida clamped down midway through. But the Gators allowed freshman quarterback Erik Ainge to go 9-of-14 for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Two completions went for 38 yards in the final minute, setting up the winning field goal.

One week later, Kentucky quarterback Shane Boyd completed seven of his first nine passes but was held to 10-of-26 for the rest of the game, a potential turning point, the Gators said.

"We see the potential," linebacker Channing Crowder said. "Getting better is about correcting what you do wrong. We tried to correct everything from the Tennessee game to the Kentucky game, and we did a pretty good job.

"The young guys are trying to catch on to the defensive schemes, just the basic ones, and we're having to throw different plays in there, too. They're doing a great job. They are really smart, and they're catching on to it."

Added Zook: "Even from the Tennessee game to this (past) week, they made a lot of improvements. Dee Webb played with a lot of confidence; Reynaldo the same way. I think Terrence Holmes is doing a nice job, getting better and better; more comfortable."

Last season, the Gators allowed Jones to go 8-of-11 for 158 yards and three touchdowns in the final nine minutes before holding on for a 33-28 win in Fayetteville. Its experience during the past three games will be key.

"It has boosted their confidence because they see they can play with anybody in the country right now," said senior safety Cory Bailey, who has started 15 games, all three this season."They can play against any scheme in the country, so it's a good thing. We just keep practicing, keep watching film and getting better as a group."

How much better will be measured Saturday.