Florida linebacker Shemar James (6) jumps on a South Florida fumble during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Defense at a Glance Ahead of the Orange & Blue Game

After weeks of spring practice, the Gators’ annual spring game, the Orange & Blue Game, has finally arrived. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will be packed with students, fans and media hoping to get their first look at the 2023 team. In particular, the game will provide a glance at the revamped defense under new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong.

What should we expect from Armstrong and the defense Thursday? Here’s a look at what to keep an eye out for.

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Big Shoes to Fill on Defense

There’s no hiding the fact that the Gators’ defense lost quite a lot of talent from last season. Florida bids farewell to Gervon Dexter Sr., Amari Burney, Ventrell Miller, Trey Dean III and Rashad Torrence II who are all pursuing the NFL. Not to mention, a long list of transfers all over the defensive side of the ball.

As a result, there are a lot of key spots in need of replacements and some big shoes to fill. Thursday will give us a chance to see who has taken advantage of spring ball to grab one of those potential open spots.

It appears that Shemar James has taken charge of the center of the defense at the linebacker spot. The expectation heading into camp was that the interior spots would likely go to a combination of Derek Wingo, James and Ohio State transfer Teradja Mitchell, but with Mitchell and Wingo limited heavily throughout the spring, James has had little choice but to step into a starting roll.

Another massive hole to fill comes on the back end of the defense. The Gators lost nine members of the secondary before spring ball which has made replacing those positions a major priority throughout camp. The Florida secondary struggled last season, but Armstrong and secondary coach Corey Raymond are hoping to flip the script and bring back the powerful Gators’ defenses of the 2000s and 2010s.

So who has stepped up? Raymond has made it clear that Jason Marshall Jr. has improved a lot.

Emerging Leadership

Florida loses a lot of leadership with the departure of some of the defense’s most vocal players. A lot of the veteran voices have left, which leaves the opportunity for younger guys to step up as leaders. Spring practice has given players the chance to develop as leaders now, ahead of the season.

Going off of his increased playing time at linebacker, Shemar James has emerged as a powerful voice on defense. While last year he had the opportunity to stand alongside veteran players like Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney, James now has to fill the void that those players leave.

Additionally, Raymond and members of the defense have credited Jason Marshall Jr. as an emerging leader, especially in the young secondary room that experienced a lot of turnover.

Looking to Thursday’s game, it should be interesting to see who appears to be emerging as a leader, especially in the presence of the younger players. Players are destined to get frustrated Thursday as they see real-game action in front of a large crowd for the first time. It’ll be important for new leaders to recognize that and address that early.

Dialing Up the Pressure on Defense

Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong is known for his complex blitz packages and dialing up lots of pressure. Thursday will be the first look at some of those packages and stunts. With the departure of multiple starters at the linebacker and defensive line spots, it will be intriguing to see who is able to get good pressure on the quarterbacks.

While the quarterbacks will not be taking any hits, members of the defense will have an opportunity to display and try out new techniques and work on stunt timing.

In addition, with complex blitzes and a lot of pressure, the back-end of the defense is often times left with little help. With a new defensive system comes a new form of communication, which will be tested Thursday. Communication is key between the defense to ensure there are no blown coverages.

Freshmen Impact

The Orange & Blue Game will be the first time playing in The Swamp in front of fans for many, including all of the freshmen who have just recently joined the program. This will be a big indicator of which freshmen may be close to earning some playing time. Through much of the spring, cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson has earned a lot of praise and could find himself earning some playing time as a true freshman.

While there are no plans to heavily rely on true freshmen in starting roles, having freshmen with the ability to rotate in is crucial. Not just for this season, but long term as they will have in-game experience come next season.

Kelby Collins has also been impressive, after turning heads at the UA All-American Game. Keep an eye on him in the pass rushing game Thursday night.

Tune into the Orange & Blue Game Thursday night at 7:30 from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

About Matt Quartararo

Matt is a fourth-year journalism major specializing in sports media and is also completing a sports management certificate. Starting in the Fall 2023 semester, Matt has served as a sports coordinator with WRUF. He also participates in sports broadcasting, providing play-by-play for a variety of Gators sports.

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