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Defense will give the lightly regarded Florida Gators at fighting chance

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Here’s a little secret about the Florida Gators.

In their best years, it turns out, the Gators have a gift for playing defense, too.

Oh, no one talks about it, of course, not at Touchdown U. Here, the quarterbacks are outside of the stadium as statues, and the conversation on everyone’s lips is whether new coach Jim McElwain can restore the offense. Who will be the quarterback? Where are the playmakers? What’s the play call going to be on third-and-nine?

Meanwhile, the Gators are going to be pretty good on defense. Again.

Really, it shouldn’t surprise that many people. Florida’s greatest successes have featured the defenses in starring roles, too.

Remember the first national title, the 52-20 victory over FSU? The Gators outscored the Seminoles 35-6 in the second half of that one. Sure, everyone talked about Danny Wuerffel and his No. 1 draft picks at receivers, Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony. But the Gators also shut down a high-powered FSU offense after the break.

Then there was the 2006 national title. The Gators swarmed Ohio State in that one, 41-14, holding Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith to four completions in 14 tries for only 35 yards. The Gators sacked him five times.

And the 2008 national title? You have to remember what a scoring machine the Oklahoma Sooners were, scoring 702 regular season points and breaking the 60-point barrier in five straight games. But the Sooners scored only twice on the Gators, and Heisman winner Sam Bradford looked ordinary.

Perhaps that is why Florida fans are quietly confident going into this year despite the low expectations. Led by a deep, talented secondary, the Gators’ defense should be able to keep Florida in most games. Vernon Hargreaves leads that secondary.

“A true, top-flight defense,” McElwain was saying the other day.

It will have to be, of course. It will have to give a new offensive coordinator time with a new quarterback and a new running back. But the defense gives Florida a chance, at least.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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