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Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's ability to rely on primarily a four-man rush has paid off this season.

Saturday December 29, 2012Gators' D-Line Has Helped Pave Way to Sugar Bowl

Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's ability to rely on primarily a four-man rush has paid off this season.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- During Saturday's practice at the Superdome Gators linebacker Jon Bostic strolled over to defensive tackle Omar Hunter and began to talk about the defensive line.

In a moment of reflection, Bostic told Hunter how much the improved defensive line helped the defense overall during Florida's 11-1 regular season -- specifically, the Gators' ability to pressure the quarterback often using only a four-man rush.

The added push up front allowed Bostic, his fellow linebackers and the defensive backs to spend more time playing the run and in pass coverage rather than blitzing to see if the Gators could somehow put pressure on the quarterback.

"From my sophomore year to my senior year, it's been a night-and-day difference,'' Bostic said. "Before we had to take on a lot more blocks and we couldn't just run through and make a tackle for loss or something like that."

The Gators finished ranked fifth in the nation in overall defense, surrendering 282.6 yards per game. They were even better at preventing points, finishing third by allowing just 12.9 points a game, UF's lowest total since 1964.

Seems no matter who you talk to about the defensive prowess the Gators showed in the second year under head coach Will Muschamp, they say the defensive line's ability to make plays and pressure the quarterback was the difference.

"Our D-line is so good,'' junior safety Matt Elam said. "It starts with our D-line."

"It makes our job easier,'' safety Josh Evans added.

The Gators will need to keep that trend going on Wednesday in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville, which is led by one of the country's most dynamic quarterbacks in sophomore Teddy Bridgewater.

"Against mobile quarterbacks you've got to have some discipline in the way that you rush,'' defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "The four-man rush will be important for us."

Pressuring the quarterback with only four rushers didn't yield much success the past couple of seasons. The Gators managed only 21 sacks in 2010. They had 28 a year ago, three more than this season with a game to play.

Still, the way they got those sacks was different. The front four usually needed help.

And according to Quinn, UF's sack total isn't as important as forcing quarterbacks to throw the ball earlier due to pressure.

The most passing yards the Gators allowed in a single game this season was 257 in a 37-20 win at Tennessee in September -- and it took Vols quarterback Tyler Bray 44 attempts to get there.

When Bostic walked over at practice Saturday, Hunter knew where he was coming from.

"It's been totally different,'' Hunter said. "Being able to rush four guys and not have to bring an extra blitzer to come and allow those guys to be in coverage and to rely on the front four to get it done has been huge for us.

"We've won a lot of games off of that."

Junior defensive lineman Dominique Easley leads the Gators with four sacks. Easley moved to defensive end this season after Ronald Powell's knee injury cost him the season.

Junior Sharrif Floyd, a prototypical defensive tackle who moved to end a season ago because of a lack of depth, moved back inside this season. Floyd has only one sack but leads the Gators with 11 tackles-for-loss.

The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Floyd can change a play without recording a stat whether he is lined up in Florida's 4-3 front or in a 3-4 formation.

"He has good initial quickness for a big guy,'' Quinn said. "And he's got real power in his lower body. Sometimes a guy may have good initial quickness but will rise up and use his hands, but this guy can really use his power to push the pocket at the quarterback and affect him that way.

"We totally count on him in all of our packages in terms of being a real force in affecting the quarterback. With us playing Louisville, their quarterback is active as there is. We know the importance of getting a guy off the spot and getting hits to him. That's something we totally believe in defensively."

Hunter has also had his best season as a senior. Hunter is sixth on the team with 39 tackles, including four for a loss.

When Floyd and Easley joined the program in 2010, they were considered the top two defensive line prospects by various recruiting services. Floyd had 23 tackles as a freshman with no sacks, while Easley had just four tackles and struggled to crack the regular rotation.

Despite less buzz about their arrival, freshman defensive linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard have made more of an impact as freshmen than Floyd and Easley two years ago. They also played key roles in Florida's ability to succeed using primarily a four-man rush.

Fowler has 27 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss and 2 1/2 sacks. Meanwhile, Bullard has 26 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and 1 1/2 sacks.

"We were waiting on them before they even got there,'' Floyd said Saturday. "We knew they were going to contribute. It was just a matter of how much. They contributed a whole lot this year."

They remind Floyd of him and Easley.

"They've got the same type of connection that me and Easley did,'' Floyd said. "Their bond is going to grow stronger, so that's just going to be nothing but good things for the defense. The stronger they become together the better the defense becomes."

The emergence of Fowler and Bullard didn't surprise Bostic. He watched Fowler toss around the Gators' offensive linemen in fall camp and knew right away the freshman from St. Petersburg was a player. He later saw the same ability in Bullard.

And Bostic said the addition of Quinn, a veteran defensive line coach in the NFL, has contributed to Florida's turnaround. Once Quinn was hired, one of his former players with the San Francisco 49ers, defensive tackles coach Bryant Young, added another layer to the mix.

"With Coach Quinn coming in and knowing so much about the defensive front, it has really helped us do different things and really teach guys the game of football,'' Bostic said.

A senior preparing for his final game, Evans flashed a big grin when asked about the defensive line's potential with Fowler and Bullard front and center and the return of Powell next season.

"Those guys are going to be the future of this defense,'' Evans said.

In some ways the future is now.

 

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