GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nine new defensive starters.
Yet the 2013 Florida Gators looked and played an awful lot like the 2012 version in stifling the rapid-fire Toledo Rockets 24-6 in Saturday’s season opener at Florida Field.
“That’s my expectation every year,” UF coach Will Muschamp said.
UF ranked second in total defense in the Southeastern Conference last season (finishing behind only two-time national champion Alabama), yet what played out in the debut game of Muschamp’s third season -- holding Toledo to just 205 yards of total offense -- wasn’t really a surprise; not considering what the defense showed in practices and scrimmages during the preseason.
The Rockets came into the game with a senior All Mid-American Conference trio of quarterback Terrance Owens (3,202 yards of total offense, 19 TDs), tailback David Fluellen (1,498 yards, 13 TDs) and wideout Bernard Reedy (88 catches, 1,113 yards, 6 TDs) to go with a 33-year-old coach in Matt Campbell who likes to play fast.
The Gators and new defensive coordinator countered with a front seven -- mixing three- and four-man lines -- out to make Owens to play faster than he wanted.
“Those guys did a great job putting pressure,” senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “We did our part in the back [end].”
Toledo had four first downs in the first half and were held two a pair of field goals for the game.
The unit that averaged 445 yards and 31 points per game in the MAC last season found the SEC going a little tougher, as the Gators, as deep as they’ve been in years, shuttled in fresh bodies.
Talented ones, too.
“I didn’t know the feeling of being out there with those guys last year, but I tell you one thing -- this team, this unit we have on defense, these guys are hungry, man,” said junior strongside linebacker Ronald Powell, who had a sack and three quarterback pressures in his first game since suffering a severe knee injury in the 2012 Orange & Blue game. “Guys appreciate each other and want to play hard and fly around with each other. Whatever the coaches draw up, everybody just worries about their job. And no one is selfish. That’s what you’re dealing with on this unit.”
It’s what the Rockets had to deal with Saturday -- and that was without starting inside linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, both of whom will be back in the lineup when the Gators go to Miami next weekend.
“We were down guys defensively and I thought we played really well,” Coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s why you recruit. That’s why you recruit. That’s why you have a deep roster. That’s why you recruit guys who don’t ask you about the depth chart 400 times. You recruit guys who want to come in here and compete.”
You can’t swing a wet towel in the Gators locker room without a coach or player reciting the Muschamp motto.
“Man down, man up,” junior linebacker Neiron Ball obliged Saturday.
The Rockets were limited to only 50 yards rushing and Owens completed just 44.7 percent of his throws. True freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III wasted little time showing the opening-day crowd why he was rated one of the top five prospects (at any position) in the country last season when he intercepted a pass and returned it 15 yards to set up UF’s put-away touchdown in the third period.
“Vernon Hargreaves never asked about the depth chart,” Muschamp said.
Hargreaves, out of Tampa Wharton, was one of five true freshmen who saw action on the defensive side, joining fellow defensive backs Nick Washington and Keanu Neal, plus linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis,
Only defensive tackle Dominique Easley and cornerback Marcus Roberson were back as starters for the Gators last season.
Didn’t seem like it.
“Everybody was working together, working for the man next to you,” Easley said. “We were on it.”
In expecting nothing less, Muschamp may have gotten even more.
And further reinforcement is on the way.