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January 5, 2009

Florida secondary comes of age quickly

RELATED: Franks not impressed with Tebow | Notes: OU defenders get defensive

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Are you already struggling with that decision to give up smoking? Do you think of abandoning your diet each time you drive past a fast-food restaurant? Perhaps the Florida secondary can offer inspiration: The Gators have proved not every New Year's resolution gets scrapped by the end of January.

After getting humiliated by Michigan's Chad Henne in last season's Capital One Bowl, Florida's defensive backs knew they had to make a change. They vowed not to let anyone pick them apart that way again.

"We kind of got embarrassed a little bit last year," Florida strong safety Ahmad Black said. "It was embarrassing, especially the bowl game. [We were] just knowing we had to get better every day. Coaches were pushing us. We were pushing each other. We had to get better."

Now they're causing embarrassment instead of experiencing it.

Florida ended the regular season second in the nation in pass efficiency defense and was tied for second with 24 interceptions. The Gators scored on five of those interceptions and have 527 interception return yards, their highest total since the statistic started being recorded in 1977.

"Watching them on film, they're very aggressive in the secondary," said Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who will face the Florida defensive backs in Thursday's BCS Championship Game. "They play a lot of man coverage, a lot of press. Their corners aren't scared to jump routes. We know that we've got to run clean routes to get separation, and I've got to put the ball in a place where they can't get to it."

Florida has put together one of the nation's top pass defenses despite having three sophomore starters (Black, free safety Major Wright and cornerback Joe Haden) along with true freshman corner Janoris Jenkins.

That young secondary will be in the spotlight Thursday as it faces an Oklahoma offense that scores at nearly a point-a-minute pace. Bradford threw 48 touchdown passes and only six interceptions on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Oklahoma has reached the 60-point mark in each of its last five games and has scored an NCAA-record 702 points this season. Florida has allowed more than 21 points once all season, in a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27.

"This is the biggest challenge I've had in my career," Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "I've seen a lot of good players in my 33 years [of coaching], but this is the best combination on offense I've seen."

Florida's young secondary already has proved it can contain a highly touted quarterback. Georgia's Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions without a touchdown pass in Florida's 49-10 victory over the Bulldogs. But the Gators acknowledge Bradford and Co. offer a unique challenge with their no-huddle attack.

"We haven't seen anything like it," Haden said.

The highest-scoring offense Florida has faced is Florida State's, which ended the regular season ranked 22nd in the nation with 33.8 points per game. Oklahoma averages an additional three touchdowns per game.

Then again, this Florida secondary is full of quick learners. Their toughest lesson came on that New Year's Day afternoon in Orlando, Fla.

Florida had entered the Citrus Bowl as a 10-point favorite, but Henne threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan's 41-35 victory. The stunning loss capped a disappointing 9-4 season in which the Gators allowed at least 31 points in four of their last seven games.

What a difference
This statistical comparison of Florida's 2007 and '08 results indicates how much the Gators have improved their pass defense this season. NCAA rankings are listed in parentheses where available.
Category 2007 2008
Pass defense258.5 ypg (99th)174.0 ypg (16th)
Pass efficiency defense128.7 (72nd)94.2 (2nd)
Interceptions11 (tie for 73rd)24 (tie for 2nd)
TD passes allowed19 (tie for 48th)10 (tie for 10th)
"I was very disturbed," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I also was smart enough to recognize Joe Haden was a true freshman. Major Wright [was a true freshman]. Janoris was just finishing his all-star game in Orlando this time last year."

Wright and Haden started in the loss to Michigan, while Black was a backup cornerback who didn't play. They felt a sense of urgency after the Citrus Bowl and immediately took steps to avoid a repeat of the 2007 season.

Jenkins adopted a similar attitude once he arrived on campus in time for spring practice after graduating early from Pahokee (Fla.) High School.

"Coach always told us you're as good as your last game," Haden said. "After the season we had last year, that meant we were kind of bad.

"We went into the season this year feeling we didn't help our team at all in the bowl game. We were the weak link."

Not anymore.

The change was obvious immediately. The Gators picked off four passes and scored on interception returns by Wright and Black in a season-opening 56-10 victory over Hawaii. The Gators haven't looked back since. They started delivering better results on Saturdays once they started working harder the rest of the week.

"To tell you the truth, last year our secondary was out there playing just to play," Wright said. "A lot of these guys, we never communicated as much as this year. This year, we're out there communicating. We know the play before it even starts. We watch a lot of film [and are] doing a lot of stuff we didn't do last year."

Wright and Haden have shown marked improvement as second-year starters, while Black and Jenkins have emerged as huge surprises.

When projected starting strong safety Dorian Munroe tore his anterior cruciate ligament this summer, Black moved from cornerback to take his place. The guy who saw scant playing time in seven games last season is tied for seventh in the nation with six interceptions this season. He has scored two touchdowns on returns and ranks second in the nation with 191 interception return yards.

Meyer credits Florida safeties coach Chuck Heater for helping Black make the sudden leap to stardom. Heater was the cornerbacks coach last season, but moved when Doc Holliday left for West Virginia; former Michigan assistant Vance Bedford was brought in to coach the cornerbacks.

"Every year it seems like Coach Heater pulls a guy out of his hat and makes him a player," Meyer said. "Ahmad Black is one of the best players statistically in America. Think about that for a moment. There's some great coaching but obviously some great playing there."

Jenkins worked his way into the starting lineup after forcing a fumble and picking off a pass in the end zone in the third game of the season, a 30-6 victory over Tennessee. Jenkins, a Rivals.com first-team Freshman All-America selection, leads the Gators with 11 pass breakups.

"He's a freshman, but he's way older than his age," Haden said. "He acts so much older than that."

That comment could describe the entire secondary, as each of these underclassmen shows the poise of a senior. None of the key backups is a senior, either. The top backup at safety is true freshman Will Hill, while juniors Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis are the backup cornerbacks.

A closer look at their backgrounds shows that the rapid emergence of the starting quartet shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Each came from a championship high school program. Haden played quarterback on a state championship team at Fort Washington (Md.) Friendly. Jenkins won three state titles at Pahokee, the same number as Black at Lakeland (Fla.) High. The only reason Wright didn't win a state title at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas is because his team lost to Black's Lakeland squad in the Class 5A state final each of his last three years in high school.

Now they're eager to win a championship together.

"We've got to keep getting better," Black said. "We've got one more game. We can't stop here. We had a long offseason, a long spring trying to get back to where we need to be.

"We're almost there, but we still haven't arrived yet."

RELATED: Franks not impressed with Tebow | Notes: OU defenders get defensive

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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