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Here’s why the Gators believe they may have the nation’s best defense

Tevan Bryan is looking to replace Dante Fowler Jr. at defensive end for Florida. (Florida Sports Communications)

Tevan Bryan is looking to replace Dante Fowler Jr. at defensive end for Florida. (Florida Sports Communications)

Florida’s defense has complimented the offense’s progress throughout fall camp.

“You can tell the offense is getting comfortable,” safety Marcus Maye said earlier this week. “They’re excited about stuff. There’s a lot of energy over there.”

But after coach Jim McElwain hinted that the offense outplayed the defense during Sunday’s two-a-day practice session, Maye wouldn’t go that far.

“I wouldn’t say the offense won the period,” said Maye, who will miss the season opener against New Mexico State along with defensive end Alex McCalister and wide receiver Latroy Pittman due to a violation of athletic department policy. “We go against each other every day and if they can move the ball on us, I feel like they can move the ball on anybody.”

That confidence has been with the Gators’ defense the entire offseason as it hopes to prove it has the best defense in college football.

With a loaded secondary that is fighting for the title of “Defensive Back University” or #DBU led by All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and a front seven that includes versatile defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, the unit doesn’t shy away from the high expectations.

“We talk about being the best all the time,” Gators defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr said. “It’s not just about the SEC. Overall we’re trying to be the best defense that this country has at one point in time. That’s just going to be the mantra, just be the best defense in the country.”

They refer to that “mantra” as #BDN, which stands for “best defense in the nation.” First-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has the hashtag posted in the locker room for motivation.

“We obviously had some pretty decent defenses at one of the places I was at,” said McElwain, referring to his time as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. “It compares to that. This is a true, top-flight SEC defense. No doubt about it.”

It didn’t click right away for Florida’s defense last season, though. Kentucky and Alabama each racked up more than 400 yards in back-to-back weeks near the start of the season. But the Gators’ defense kept improving, allowing 272 yards per game over the final eight games of the regular season.

Florida’s defense allowed 21.1 points per game last season and finished fifth in the country in yards allowed per play (4.6).

“No question, we’ve gotten better every year,” Maye said. “The more you do anything, the better you get at it. The more opportunities you have to be around each other makes a difference.”

Vernon Hargreaves III is one of the nation's best defensive backs. (Butch Dill/AP)

Vernon Hargreaves III is one of the nation’s best defensive backs. (Butch Dill/AP)

Although plenty of veteran leadership will be back, new faces and unproven players will also be expected to contribute this season.

The unit returns seven starters, but the loss of defensive end Dante Fowler leaves a giant void — literally and figuratively. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Fowler was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the third overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft.

McCalister, who played in 12 games but did not make any starts last season, is confident he can fill that void. The junior is out to surpass the 8.5 sacks Fowler recorded last season.

“Oh yeah, that’s my goal,” McCalister said. “Since the day the season was over and I knew that I was coming back, my goal was to beat him. I’ve got to get nine or 10. I really want to go into double digits. That’s a little personal goal. Me and Dante are so tight that it’s fun to compete.”

Freshman defensive end Cece Jefferson, who was a consensus five-star prospect, is expected to add depth to the defensive line.

The unit is also trying to overcome an injury to one of its leaders. Senior linebacker Antonio Morrison, who led the Gators with 101 tackles last season, is still recovering from a knee injury and is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season.

But it hasn’t stopped Florida’s defense from buying into the hype.

“When you’re all together and everybody believes it, that’s all it takes,” McCalister said. “Everybody has the same mind-set — we are the best defense in the nation. We’re going to prepare and practice like the best defense in the nation and hopefully that’s the result.”

FLORIDA’S RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS:

DE Jonathan Bullard

DE Bryan Cox Jr.

CB Vernon Hargreaves

LB Antonio Morrison

S Keanu Neal

CB Brian Poole

CB Jalen Tabor


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