Things went from bad to worse for Florida on Wednesday, as coach Will Muschamp announced that starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley will miss the remainder of the 2013 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during Tuesday's practice.
“As I said earlier today on the SEC Conference Call, Dominique injured his right knee in practice late Tuesday night in a non-contact situation," Muschamp said in a statement. "Test results have revealed that he suffered a tear of both his ACL and medial meniscus, which will require season-ending surgery.
“I talked to Dominique and the team this afternoon and we will continue to look for his leadership and experience throughout the season."
This is a major loss for the Gators. Already without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the remainder of the season because of a broken right fibula, Florida will now go the remainder of the season without arguably its best player. One of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC this season, Easley was viewed as possible first-round draft pick.
He didn't have monster stats, but his explosion off the line, constant motor and ability to garner double-teams provided his teammates with one-on-one opportunities up front. He created more plays for those around him than he did for himself, yet he was still able to put constant pressure on quarterbacks and running backs.
“Watching any of your players go through this is one of the hardest things about being a coach," Muschamp added. "Obviously, it is hardest on Dominique. We are disappointed for him, but we will be there for him every step of the way through his surgery and rehab process.”
Florida's SEC East title chances took a hit after Driskel went down -- making longtime backup Tyler Murphy the starter -- but they might be out the window with the loss of Easley. The Gators enter Saturday's game against Kentucky with the SEC's top defense and second-ranked defense nationally (212.3 yards allowed per game). Without Easley, the Gators will have to rely more on their outside pass-rush to create pressure on opposing backfields.
While Florida certainly has depth, and will rely heavily on interior players like Leon Orr, Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings, it will be very hard to replace a player like Easley. Expect freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. to get more work in the rotation going forward.
The good news is that Florida has bodies to work with. There are enough players up front to create a solid rotation going forward, but players like Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. have to step up to be even more consistent playmakers. The double-teams that Easley commanded will have to go somewhere else in order to create mismatches up front.
This defense isn't sunk, but the pressure for it to carry this team just got a lot bigger with the loss of Easley.