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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Florida’s Line Depth Takes a Major Hit

The game started to slow down for Ronald Powell during bowl workouts late last fall. His technique had improved, according to Will Muschamp. The game had slowed down. “I told him the other day I thought he had his best practice since we’ve been here,” Muschamp said in December. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn echoed that point, saying that during the regular season, Powell was one of several young defenders who tended to “over-think” his defensive responsibilities. But during bowl preparations, Powell was “terrific.” And the good signs continued during the spring, with Muschamp calling Powell the Gators’ most consistently productive lineman; in another positive development, Muschamp had only good things to say about Powell’s effort.

Even with Powell’s strong play during bowl work and during the spring, Florida continued to have issues with defensive line depth. As Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun pointed out after Florida’s first major scrimmage in late March, “the Gators were pretty much one-deep in scholarship players on the defensive line.”

That’s due to injuries: would-be starters Dominique Easley and Lerentee McCray sat out the spring, with Easley not expected to recover from last fall’s knee injury until the summer — though he’s expected to be ready to go come September.

Earl Okine injured his back during the spring, keeping him on the sidelines. Leon Orr missed the first portion of spring drills, though he was back in the fold by the end of March. During that first scrimmage, as Andreu noted, the six linemen were Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, Ronald Powell, Damien Jacobs, Gideon Ajagbe and Nick Alajajian, the latter a converted offensive linemen.

With this lack of depth, Florida needed to stay healthy as much as it needed to develop its young and talented — and still unproven, to a degree — defensive front. The Gators need Hunter, Floyd and Easley to reach their potential. Orr needs to get back to full strength. Muschamp and Quinn need Powell to continue his growth into an all-SEC rush end.

Or needed, rather. Now, after Powell tore his A.C.L. during this weekend’s spring game, what the Gators need to do is reevaluate their defensive line options — Powell will miss four to six months, potentially robbing Florida of its most integral defensive piece for much of this coming season.

If Powell misses four months, he’ll return to the practice field in August. If he misses six months, Powell won’t be back until October. If his recovery takes only four months, there’s a pretty good chance that Powell can get back to full speed by the heart of SEC play. If it takes six months, you can pretty much write him off for the 2012 season.

Florida’s in trouble up front. Muschamp doesn’t give out praise willy-nilly: he’s tight-lipped with positive reinforcement, so his strong praise for Powell over the winter and during spring drills speaks volumes. If Muschamp and Quinn said that Powell was ready to break out, there’s every reason to think that the junior was poised for an all-conference season.

The Gators have to return to the drawing board, perhaps shuffling the incumbent starters up front in an effort to replace Powell’s production. It’s about getting pressure on the quarterback: Powell led the Gators in sacks last fall — he only had five, to be fair — but the defense as a whole must do a better job getting into the backfield. Who steps into Powell’s shoes?

The Gators have only two players listed at the Buck position, the defense’s equivalent of a rush end-linebacker hybrid: Powell and Gideon Ajagbe. The latter could simply slide into Powell’s spot, but does Muschamp believe Ajagbe, a little-used sophomore, can replicate what Powell brought to the table?

If the Gators can’t replace one-on-one, with Ajagbe replacing Powell, Muschamp and Quinn could shift to an all-hands-on-deck focus: Ajagbe, Kedric Johnson, Okine and more. Let the group as a whole step in for Powell. It’s a good idea, and perhaps Florida’s best option, but it might also rob the Gators of valuable depth elsewhere.

Here’s an option for Florida: go big. Leave the responsibility of getting added pressure on the linebackers, returning starters like Jelani Jenkins, Jon Bostic and McCray, once the latter gets healthy. Put Hunter and Easley inside, with Orr and Jacobs, a JUCO transfer, adding depth, and move Floyd outside. That’s an enormous front four; while the Gators might struggle getting to the quarterback with their down linemen, this group would stand tall against the run.

Hopefully, any new plan is only temporary. Hopefully, Powell’s recovery runs ahead of schedule, perhaps getting him back into playing shape by mid-September — maybe Powell is back in the rotation for Tennessee on Sept. 15 and back in the starting lineup, taking his customary snaps, by L.S.U. on Oct. 6.

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  1. Lee says:

    Dante Fowler JR will potentially help ease the loss of Powell. I suspect that Powell will be ready by Early October.

    Lerente Mcray had some success in the Buck last year so who knows.

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