Do not worry, UF safety Marcell Harris insists. The defense will be just fine.
The Gators’ defense will be as aggressive, stingy and successful as the units that served as the backbone of back-to-back SEC East winners and have finished ranked in the top-10 nationally at the end of every regular season since 2011.
A standard has been set. Harris and his teammates are determined not to let it slip.
“Best defense in the nation. That’s how we come out,” said Harris, a fifth-year senior from Orlando. “That’s how we go about things. That’s what our attitude is: we come out to be the best every time.”
There are reasons to suspect a dropoff is imminent, even though Gators have lost top talent before and fielded a top defense.
But since 2011 UF has never lost more than six starters on defense. The 2017 Gators must replace eight, including five selected during the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
Injuries to several of 2016 starters, though, forced less experienced players, including Harris, into bigger roles and required them to raise their level of play.
When three-year starter Marcus Maye broke his arm Nov. 12 against South Carolina, Harris turned a solid season into a breakout one after three years spent mostly in the shadows. Harris made the tackle on the goal-line stand at LSU and totaled 39 of his team-leading 76 stops during the season’s final four games.
“I’ve always been ready every time I walked out of the tunnel,” Harris said.”I just needed the opportunity to come out and show what I can do.”
This season will give a many Gator defenders a chance to shine — or succumb to expectations.
No one is on the spot or in the spotlight more than defensive back Duke Dawson, a fifth-year senior and a friend of Harris’ dating to their 7-on-7 days on a team coached by former Gators’ All-American Keiwan Ratliff.
Dawson stymied slot receivers as a nickel back last season, when he led the Gators with seven pass break-ups and had a pick-six. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Dawson now makes the demanding move to cornerback, where faster, taller wideouts reside and UF has a tradition of excellence.
A year after Vernon Hargreaves III was a first team All-American and first-round draft pick, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson formed the SEC’s top cornerback tandem and were selected in the second round of the 2017 draft.
“It’s a point to prove for me,” Dawson said.
Many expect Dawson to rise to the occasion.
Media voted him the All-SEC preseason first team, while Athlon Sports pegged Dawson a second team preseason All-American.
Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore end Jabari Zuniga is generating considerable buzz within the program.
Junior left tackle Martez Ivey, also a first-team, preseason All-SEC pick, predicts Zuniga will be the Gators’ next defensive star.
“He can beat you with the pass rush, he can beat you in the run game, he can hold his gap, he can set the edge,” Ivey marveled. “Man, he can do it all. I’m impressed. He came a long way since he got here.”
Zuniga now looks to become more consistent; he recorded 8.5 tackles for loss in 2016, but six were during three games.
Hot-and-cold play was the norm with other key returners, including ends CeCe Jefferson and Jordan Sherit, tackle Taven Bryan, linebacker Vosean Joseph and defensive back Chauncey Gardner. Middle linebacker David Reese was a rock as a freshman until a wrist injury that required offseason surgery. End Antonneous Clayton and linebackers Jeremiah Moon are long, versatile athletes with high ceilings.
Having faced these players day after day, Ivey expects the re-tooled defense to uphold the standard set for it.
“I don’t see no dropoff,” he said. “They know what they’re expected to do and they’re going to get the job done.”
UF will find out quickly.
Unlike most years, the Gators will not ease into the season. They open Sept. 2 outside of Dallas against Big Ten power Michigan.
“We won’t be as experienced, but I think we’re pretty dang talented,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “We’ve got to get those guys going early because that game is a real game.”