Originally created 11/18/99

Defense becoming strong point for Gators



GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The so-called stars on last year's Florida defense took the money, took their talent and moved to the NFL.

They left behind a group of untested substitutes who were expected to learn on the job and become -- like most defenses at Florida -- the supporting cast to a high-flying offense.

Things didn't go quite as planned. But oddly, everything has turned out well so far for the Gators.

Heading into Saturday's game against No. 1 Florida State, the third-ranked Gators haven't allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters. They haven't given up more than 14 points since Oct. 2.

In a sense, the defense has been welcomed to a world previously unheard of at Florida. It has learned that, indeed, it can be vital to keep the other team from scoring. That's the way things are now that scores like 13-6 and 20-3 have become as common as the 52-20 and 32-29 finals that used to light up scoreboards wherever the Gators played.

"Before, we were scoring 40 or 50 points a game," said linebacker Eugene McCaslin. "Sometimes, things change. You get different players, different athletes, different schemes, different teams. So you come out there and deal with what you have. We feel as defensive unit, we can go out there and contribute to a win everytime we play."

McCaslin may as well be the poster child of this no-name defense. Last year, he played tailback for the Gators. A glut at that position, and a dearth at linebacker, forced him to make a change.

Elsewhere, the Gators have talent, but other than defensive end Alex Brown, few have produced the hype that Jevon Kearse, Mike Peterson, Johnny Rutledge and Reggie McGrew did on last year's team.

Those four produced, but never seemed to play as well as they should have, given their raw talent. And when they left for the NFL, coaches said they were looking forward to working with a new group, one void of egos or expectations.

"We come in with the mindset that if we don't give up a point, we can't lose," Brown said. "If the offense scores, that's our opportunity as a defense to win the game. The object is, if we get the lead, we can't let them score."

It's been a slow, unsteady process, but it seems as if the defense is rounding into form at the perfect time. The performances of the first two weeks, in which the Gators allowed a combined 784 yards to Western Michigan and Central Florida, are well behind them.

Gone too are the passive schemes that allowed Alabama to convert 11 third downs in its stunning 40-39 victory at The Swamp.

Prodded by coach Steve Spurrier, new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke has become more aggressive with the zone blitz schemes he brought with him from Missouri. Blitzing more actively, the Gators have 17 sacks and 12 turnovers over their last five games. Quarterbacks have completed just 42 percent during that period and the Gators have allowed more than 251 yards just once.

Clearly, it's a successful formula for a defense that will always be better known for its stats than for its stars.

"We still have the same blue-collar identity we had at the beginning of the season," said defensive lineman Derrick Chambers. "We don't buy into a lot of hype. We don't have a bunch of All-Americans. Then again, we don't really care about that. Our big goal this year has been to get better week in and week out. That's the most important thing."