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October 9, 2012

UF defense using intimidation to its advantage



LSU running back Spencer Ware bounced outside and was met by Matt Elam. Florida's safety leveled Ware after one yard, immediately continuing past him to soak in some Florida Field admiration.

Ware remained on his back, just long enough for Gators linebacker Jonathan Bostic to arrive at the scene. Florida's smile-clad, polished senior leader stood over Ware, taking the opportunity to get in his face and exchange a few words. Enter the yellow flag and a 15-yard penalty.

"I didn't really think it was too much, but I guess the ref did," Bostic said.

To Bostic, the hit set a tone. After Elam's shot, Bostic said LSU's running backs were more tentative on carries, not running as hard as one might expect. To the rest of the defense, Bostic's flag set a tone of its own.

It seems every positive story about Florida these days starts with the phrase "One season ago." No reason to change that here.

One season ago, the Gators were on the wrong end of the Southeastern Conference intimidation factor. They were the team that was the target of trash talk and humiliation for opponents. Without much on-field credibility, they generally had to take their lumps.

"This whole summer we thought about it," junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "It's always in the back of our heads that we won't be the ones that be intimidated this year."

Now, Florida's swagger borders on cockiness. The Gators are the team that yells at the opposition when it takes the field during warmups, doesn't mind a 15-yard "aggressive" penalty here or there and will celebrate every moment of it.

Specifically on defense, Florida has aimed to set an intimidation aspect early. Against LSU, it did just that.

"I expected to see a little back and forth but it was mostly us doing the talking," Watkins said.

Extracurricular activities usually aren't highly thought of by coaches when they're unproductive. Fortunately for Florida, everything appears to be calculated.

Although the Gators are the second-most penalized team in the SEC, they have also drawn more opponent penalty yards per game (58) than any other team in the conference. If it sounds familiar, it's because it is. In 2008, Florida was the second-most penalized team in the SEC and drew more than 50 opponent penalty yards per game. The Gators also won a national title that season.

Penalties have been drawn by notorious pests like defensive end Dominique Easley.

"I knew they had something out for me," Easley said after getting attacked after the whistle early against LSU. "Hey, come get me. When I come get you, you better be ready. I love when people do that because I'm going to come after you. I'm going to come after you the whole game."

Florida's on-field antics are led by none other than its star player. Elam is as loose a cannon as one can possibly be while making play after play at a variety of positions. After one third-quarter hit, he flashed a "go to sleep" taunt to an LSU wide receiver. Watkins said Elam's name with a smile when asked if anyone on the defense is "crazy."

Redshirt senior Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray carries a similar demeanor. On a play whistled dead for false start, he continued into the Tigers' backfield and bear-hugged quarterback Zach Mettenberger until a referee pulled him away.

Neither Elam nor McCray were flagged for the aforementioned plays. LSU left Gainesville with eight penalties for 83 yards and a 14-6 loss.

"That bad-boy persona on and off the field," Watkins said. "It works for (Elam and McCray)."

It's starting to work for everyone.


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