Florida's 2010 recruiting class was one of the richest in the country by any standard, but nowhere more so than in the Gators' absurd haul in the middle of the defensive line: In Sharrif Floyd (Pennsylvania) and Dominique Easley (New York), the Gators went north for the two best DT prospects in the nation, according to Rivals, and landed top-rated local Leon Orr to round out the class — a class that had a chance to maybe, finally, break the persistent defensive tackle curse under Urban Meyer. The verdict after year one: Reply hazy, try again.
On one hand, Floyd (right) was a key cog in the regular rotation from early on, played in every game and closed the season as a starter in the Capital One Bowl win over Penn State. Orr never set foot on the field and redshirted. Then there's Easley, who compared himself to LeBron James after a few days of practice, skipped a practice when veterans gave him crap for comparing himself to LeBron James and was briefly off the travel team in early November for "a lot of reasons," according to Meyer. Easley eventually returned to finish the season with appearances in six games with minimal impact, an "ask again later" debut if ever there was one.
Even for a freshman, the sputtering start is red siren enough for Florida fans, who have seen enough high-profile head cases at the position over the last five years to know the early stages of a potential bust when they see one. Meyer's first four full recruiting classes in Gainesville included eight defensive tackle prospects rated four stars or higher by Rivals — and yet, somehow, not a single reliable starter among them, much less anyone resembling an all-conference type.
From those eight, the Gators got one solid season (from Terron Sanders, a regular on the 2008 BCS title team who lost his starting gig by 2009) and one really big play (from Torrey Davis, who made a critical goal line tackle to deny Oklahoma on 4th-and-1 in the 2008-09 BCS Championship Game, before loafing his way off the team), and still have reasonable hope for Omar Hunter, who's been a regular part of the rotation each of the last two years. Otherwise, Harris and fellow five-star Gary Brown (booted from the team after a domestic battery arrest in February 2010) have led a hodgepodge of hyped talents quickly done in by injuries, mediocrity or some variety of off-field knuckleheadedness, even as Florida has regularly finished among the top defenses in the country.
So it had to be at least a minor relief, then, when the initial pre-spring depth chart emerged this week with Easley joining Floyd and massively hyped classmate Ronald Powell (right) on the first string in the absence of spring injury casualties Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard, as the most notable beneficiary of new coach Will Muschamp's clean slate policy:
...[Muschamp] is aware of Dominique Easley's past behavior issues, but is not holding them against him. "That was last season," Muschamp said flatly. "This is this year."
"I said, 'You're going to do it our way,'" Muschamp said. "Change is inevitable; growth is optional. It's going to happen. It's either you do it our way or you leave."
For his part, Easley recently said he is happier at Florida and feels good about the new staff.
"They let me know what they expected and said they'd give me an opportunity to show them what I can do," he told the Staten Island Advance. "That's what I wanted to hear, and I feel a lot more comfortable about the way things are going."
If things go the way everyone wants, the Gators have an opportunity to field a front-four rotation this fall featuring a) Three defensive tackles (Floyd, Hunter and Easley) who once ranked as five-star recruits; b) A top pass rusher (Powell) who ranked as the No. 1 incoming prospect at any position last year; c) Two other defensive ends (William Green and Chris Martin, a 2010 redshirt after transferring from Cal) who entered as top-100 prospects, the kind of guys who'd be the unquestioned starts-in-waiting on almost any other team; and d) A lot of guys who have played very little. The only defensive line returnee who started a majority of last year's games or finished among the team's top 10 tacklers is Jaye Howard, and he came in tenth.
It's the kind of group, in other words, that shapes up as both kinds of nightmare at once, depending on your perspective: A nightmare for opponents if it lives up to its potential, and a nightmare for Florida — again — if it doesn't. The difference between this crop and its floppy predecessors is that (Easley's rocky transition notwithstanding) the rising stars seem to at least know the value of staying out of their own way. Powell and Floyd weren't instant starters last year, but they played plenty of regular minutes and seem perfectly poised for breakout seasons that will justify the recruiting hype. Hunter hasn't dominated, but has established himself as a reliable starter going into his junior season. For his part, Easley seems to realize he has a fresh start, and possibly a new comfort level on campus; ditto Chris Martin after his mandatory season on the bench. Muschamp's record of fielding elite defensive fronts speaks for itself. All he has to do now is assemble the pieces.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.