Defensive prowess in Gators’ mindset

HOOVER, Ala. — Florida Gators senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio has no illusions about Florida’s surprising success last season.

While the offense struggled for yards, point and answers pretty much every week, the defense carried Florida to 11 regular-season wins and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

“We were a defensive team last year,” Halapio said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “When we did mess up, and we messed up a lot, they always had our backs.”

Halapio said he believes the offense will pull its weight in 2013. But Florida’s rebuilt defensive lineup could once again be the key to Florida’s success.

Gone to the NFL are defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and six starters. Three of the former Gators were among the top 50 selections in the NFL draft (defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam, middle linebacker Jon Bostic), while three others are on NFL rosters (outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, free safety Josh Evans, outside linebacker Lerentee McCray). Fifth-year senior nose tackle Omar Hunter started every game in 2012 and has exhausted his eligibility.

“I’m young, but I’m old fashioned,” coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday. “You better be strong up the middle in any sport. When you lose Hunter, Floyd, Bostic, Elam, Evans, it will create some sleepless nights.”

Before his team’s collapse during a 33-23 Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville, Muschamp could count on his defense to keep the Gators in games against any opponent.

Florida shut down eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel during the second half of the Gators’ 20-17 comeback win at Texas A&M. The Gators rode their defense to wins over No. 3 LSU and No. 8 South Carolina. The defense kept Florida in the game despite six turnovers during a crushing 17-9 loss to Georgia that cost the Gators a spot in the SEC Championship.

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw recalled Tuesday how the Gators defense throttled the Gamecocks during a 44-11 Florida win. The game began with a corner blitz Shaw never saw coming on the first play. The crushing blow led to a fumble and quick Florida touchdown.

“Goodness, that was just an odd play,” Shaw said. “I wasn’t looking for it. It just set the tone for the game because we fumbled three or four times in the game. It seemed like we couldn’t get back on track.”

When fall camp opens on Aug. 2, the Gators will begin the process of building another game-changing defense.

A longtime defensive coordinator before he came to Florida in 2011, Muschamp will be hands-on with the project. But he will rely heavily on a first-year defensive coordinator, D.J. Durkin, a new outside linebackers coach, Jeff Choate, and a new defensive line coach, Brad Lawing.

While the Gators feature one of the nation’s top cornerback tandems in juniors Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, questions abound pretty much everywhere else.

Among the team’s front seven, only senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley and junior outside linebacker Ronald Powell have started more than three games. But Easley played end in 2012 and Powell is back after he missed the season and needed two major knee surgeries.

Senor Jaylen Watkins, a starting cornerback last season, will move to safety - the position that might concern Muschamp more than any on his defense.

Meanwhile, big things are expected from sophomore linebackers Dante Fowler, who will be one of the team’s top pass rushers, and Antonio Morrison, who will replace Bostic in the middle. Sophomore end Jon Bullard led Florida as a reserve with seven quarterback hurries.

“I think the talent is there,” Muschamp said of the overall defense. “Just sometimes maybe the snaps aren’t.”

Muschamp’s track record also is there.

At LSU and Texas, he coached defenses that played for national titles. Last season, the Gators’ defense carried Florida to the No. 3 spot in the BCS standings by the end of the regular season.

“I don’t think that defense takes a step back,” said ESPN analyst David Pollock, an All-American defensive end at Georgia. “Will Muschamp has proven himself. I don’t worry the slightest bit about their defense.”