GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's hard to find fault with a defense that ranked No. 5 in the nation last season.
Stout defense has been the identity of the Florida Gators under coach Will Muschamp. It has carried the team and its dysfunctional offense for years. But something was off in 2013.
Florida fielded its usual dominant pass defense, allowing just nine TDs through the air (second-fewest in the country). But the run defense slipped from a No. 4 ranking in 2012 to No. 33 last season (allowing 47.5 more rushing yards per game), including an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern in which Florida gave up 429 yards -- all on the ground.
Those numbers, however, still indicate some blame for the Florida offense. Opponents in 2013 typically kept the Gators off the scoreboard, built up a lead and then ran out the clock. So UF's defensive stats are skewed.
But after a week of picking on the offense in identifying the five position groups that have room to improve, the final installment of this series has to focus on the defense.
Because everything starts up front, we'll look at the defensive line. It had plenty to do with the run defense getting worse in 2013, and it had its worst season in years in terms of applying pressure to quarterbacks.
Florida had 19 sacks in 12 games last season, down from 30 in 13 games the year before and continuing a downward trend since recording 39 sacks in 14 games in 2009.
Battling for No. 1: Florida has solid bookends in buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and strong-side end Jonathan Bullard. Their talent is undeniable, but the production just does not match it. One or two splashy games a season isn't good enough. But UF's ends also need more help from their interior linemen. When Florida lost senior DT Dominique Easley to injury, the threat of a push up the middle was gone. The starters at defensive tackle this fall are likely to be seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, but unless they show dramatic improvement in disrupting opponents, Florida is going to need contributions from some newcomers.
Strength in numbers: Muschamp said the Gators are excited about three defensive tackles who redshirted last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles -- saying each has "the athleticism and the girth to play the position." Florida could also get a contribution from Joey Ivie. He was the only D-lineman who didn't redshirt in 2013 and can play inside or outside. At defensive end, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister stepped forward as backups last season. It's important for either of those two, or redshirt freshman end Jordan Sherit, to take the next step and improve Florida's pass rush this fall.
New on the scene: The Gators signed a terrific defensive lineman class in 2014. Gerald Willis III, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound prospect ranked No. 42 overall in the nation, can play end or tackle and could make an immediate impact. Tackles Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark are highly touted but raw talents who could redshirt but have the bodies to play immediately. Early enrollee defensive end Taven Bryan has already drawn raves from Muschamp, who said, "he's explosive. He's got really good flexibility in his lower body. He's got a great motor, a great work ethic. We are extremely pleased." Florida also signed buck linebacker prospect Justus Reed, an ESPN 300 talent with potential who is likely to redshirt while he adds bulk and strength to his 6-3, 215-pound frame.