Questions mount for Gators defense

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The one constant in Florida’s 2012 season -- until the Allstate Sugar Bowl, anyway -- was the Gators’ defense.

The unit was one of the nation’s best, ranking in the top five nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, and scoring, and it kept the Gators in games while the offense struggled.

Heading into the 2013 season, however, the defense has become as big an uncertainty as the offense in the wake of the departure of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the inexperience of replacement D.J. Durkin, and the loss of seven starters.

There were already significant questions about the unit because of the loss of those starters, which include All-American S Matt Elam, potential first-round NFL draft pick DT Sharrif Floyd, and a pair of players who played the best football of their careers during 2012 (NT Omar Hunter and S Josh Evans). Also gone is MLB Jon Bostic, who started 32 games in his career, including every game in 2011 and 2012.

But Quinn’s departure on Thursday to become the defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks muddies things even more. Quinn’s defenses ranked among the top 10 nationally in his two seasons at Florida. The Gators were fifth nationally in scoring (15.4 ppg), second in pass efficiency defense, and fourth in rush defense (94.9 ypg), and gave up only seven passing touchdowns, which was second only to Boise State (four), in 2012. In 2011, the Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense, seventh nationally in passing defense, and second nationally in third-down defense.

His replacement, Durkin, has been UF’s linebackers coach and special teams coordinator since 2010. He has never been a coordinator before. Quinn had only been one for one year (Hofstra in 2000), but he had spent the previous 10 seasons in the NFL before joining Muschamp’s inaugural staff. However, Durkin has done a good job coordinating UF’s special teams (the Gators rank 11th or better in three statistical categories) and after watching him for two seasons, Muschamp quickly promoted him to succeed Quinn.

"That’s a job interview for two years," Muschamp said. "It’s a long job interview, but it’s very evident to me that he was the right guy for the job.

"... D.J.’s similar to Dan in a sense that the guy is very bright, smart, energetic, does a great job with our players. Obviously you see the results he had on special teams. They’re outstanding. He sees the big picture of the game and understands what it takes to be successful. But more than anything to me, understands everything and our system’s pretty good. Dan had never called defenses two years ago [at the FBS level] until he showed up at Florida and he did a pretty good job in two years."

Muschamp said a huge benefit to promoting Durkin is continuity. The players are familiar with Durkin, he’s familiar with them, and there’s no learning curve regarding terminology and philosophy. And Muschamp already knows he can work with Durkin, which is important because Muschamp is essentially the co-coordinator.

Muschamp’s main involvement comes during the week in meetings and game planning. On Saturdays, Durkin will call the defensive plays.

"Sometimes for a younger coordinator who hasn't called a lot, all of the sudden the offense presents some things that are different, you've got to be able to adjust in the game," Muschamp said. "Dan called the defenses here and D.J. will call the defenses here."

His success depends on replacing those seven starters, including:

  • Three of the four spots on the defensive line;

  • Two linebackers;

  • Both safeties.

Durkin and Muschamp are helped by the return of DT/DE Dominique Easley (67 tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks in his career) and the Gators’ top four corners (Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, Loucheiz Purifoy and Cody Riggs).

Also, UF returns three talented sophomores who played a lot as freshmen in DE Jonathan Bullard, Buck Dante Fowler, and LB Antonio Morrison.

Buck linebacker Ronald Powell is set to return after he missed the 2012 season with a torn ACL.

Plus, Durkin has Muschamp’s confidence.

"He’s a great motivator," Muschamp said. "He’s smart, intelligent, understands the game, sees the big picture. All the things I think it takes to be a successful play caller on offense or defense, he has.

"People understand defensively we’re not changing. Schematically, the terminology is not going to change. We don’t have to wholesale change anything within our organization because you want to hire good enough coaches that you know can be coordinators and can be in that role when those situations happen."