Members of the media, if last week’s voting in the SEC preseason poll is any indication, scoff at the idea of defense winning championships.
The media overwhelmingly picked Florida — a program with just enough safeties to field a team — to win the SEC East and not, surprisingly, national favorite Georgia. The dynamic trio of quarterback Tim Tebow, receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Cornelius Ingram, it seems, outweighs the problems in Florida’s secondary.
And those problems are numerous. Starting strong safety Dorian Munroe and backup free safety John Curtis are out for the season with knee injuries. Gators coach Urban Meyer dismissed free safety Jamar Hornsby from the team earlier this summer following his arrest for felony theft. Jerimy Finch transferred home to Indiana.
History shows that defense is the best indicator of championship teams in the SEC. Last year, national champion LSU ranked third nationally in total defense. The previous season, Florida won the national title with the sixth-ranked defense in the country.
The Gators ranked 41st last year and lost to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. But Meyer is confident that incoming freshman Will Hill can handle the starting job at strong safety, where he will compete with sophomore Ahmad Black.
The 6-foot-3, 203-pound Hill, the nation’s top-ranked safety out of high school by most recruiting services, has earned comparisons to former Gator and NFL first-round-pick Reggie Nelson because of his size and speed.
“I look forward to watching him play,” said Meyer, who did not even bring a defensive player to SEC Media Days. “I hear good things from our strength staff about what kind of work ethic he has. Ahmad Black is a guy that had a tremendous spring. Right now, Will Hill and Ahmad are battling for that spot.”
Sophomore Major Wright, who started seven games last season, is Florida’s top free safety. And one of the only free safeties.
Meyer moved Cade Holliday from receiver to free safety and said more changes are coming. The depth behind Joe Haden and Wondy Pierre-Louis at cornerback is also troublesome.
“We already met with a player, I don’t want to release it yet, but we’ll probably bump another good freshman player over from offense to defense and let him compete for one of those spots as well,” Meyer said.
Meyer also believes he improved the defensive staff, hiring Vance Bedford from Michigan to coach cornerbacks and former Iowa State coach and South Florida assistant Dan McCarney as an assistant head coach for the defense.
He’s still searching for a leader. LSU’s Les Miles was lauded for trying, and converting, five fourth-down attempts against Florida last year. But for the team on the other sideline, the game was symbolic of the entire season — a failure to make defensive stops in critical situations.
“We didn’t get the guy down on fourth down because we just didn’t have a guy to make that play,” Meyer said. “The guy didn’t step up. The huddle didn’t get together. Some maybe don’t believe. Some people feel we called the wrong defense. I don’t. I think someone’s got to disengage, get off a block and make a play. That comes from a team that’s being very well led. I never want to undervalue that, and I never will.”
It’s a lot of defensive talk from a coach renowned for his offense. Meyer isn’t the only one. Steve Spurrier, whose explosive Florida teams made scoreboards flicker, is on his fourth defensive coordinator in four years at South Carolina.
“We can’t contend for the championship if we finish ninth or 10th in defense,” Spurrier said.
Neither, most likely, could Florida. And that would make the media — which has correctly picked the winner just once since 1996 — wrong again.