Florida Gators' top 5 defensive players

ESPN’s GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. For 30 weekdays we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida had one of the nation’s top defenses in 2011. The upcoming season should be no different.

There are 12 players returning who started at least three games last season. There is a good mix of younger and older players, especially in the secondary. In fact, most of UF’s top players on the roster can be found on the defensive side of the ball.

That made choosing the Gators’ top five defensive players heading into the 2012 season difficult. Buck Ronald Powell was not included on the list because he is expected to miss part of the season with a torn ACL, and there’s no way to know how effective he will be when he returns. If he were completely healthy, he’d be on the list.

Here they are in order:

S Matt Elam -- He is UF’s best defensive player and is good enough to leave for the NFL draft after this season. He was a nickelback and special teams standout as a freshman in 2010, then started every game last season. He led the Gators in pass breakups (seven) and tackles for loss (11.0). He was second on the team with 78 tackles. He’s a big hitter who rarely finds himself out of position.

LB Jonathan Bostic -- He’s a tackling machine (team-high 94 last season and 169 in his career). He has 4.5 sacks, and his three interceptions are the most among any returning player. He’s got good instincts, is very good against the run and is a better defender against the pass than he gets credit for.

DT Dominique Easley -- He’s coming back from a torn ACL but should be completely healthy by the opener. He’s so quick and his first step is so good that he can rarely be handled by one blocker. He needs to be more disciplined and not jump offside as much. He’ll move to end at times and has the capability to be a dominant player there, too.

DT/DE Sharrif Floyd -- He’s been forced to play end because of personnel issues, but he’s a natural tackle. He’s quick and strong and would be an All-SEC tackle if he could stay there permanently. He has 11.0 tackles for loss in his career, which is the most of any returning defensive player.

LB Jelani Jenkins -- He’s always around the ball, too (153 career tackles). He’s very athletic and quick and he’s bulked up over the offseason, so that should make him even tougher to block. If he learns to hold onto the football he could become the game-changing linebacker that UF coach Will Muschamp has been trying to find.