GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -Florida coach Urban Meyer walked off the practice field earlier this week, called his wife and said the defense was going to be just fine.
He called again the following night and said, ``It's looking really bad right now.''
Not even Meyer knows what he's going to get from his young, inexperienced defense this season. It changes play to play, practice to practice, week to week.
``That's what you have when you have young players,'' Meyer said Friday at Florida's media day.
For all the excitement the defending national champions have about their offense - they return four offensive linemen, have several playmakers and finally get to see Tim Tebow take over at quarterback - there is an equal amount of apprehension about the defense.
Florida's top four defensive linemen are gone. So are all three starting linebackers, both cornerbacks and All-American safety Reggie Nelson.
Sure, defensive end Derrick Harvey and strong safety Tony Joiner returned for 2007, but they have few experienced players around them. The Gators have even less of an idea what's in store Sept. 1 in the season opener against Western Kentucky.
``We have to be more creative,'' co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. ``We have to decide who are we and what are we going to be on defense? We have to get a signature from somewhere. We need to find that identity pretty quickly. I don't know if we can get it before the first two games.''
Last season, the Gators were able to get consistent pressure with a four-man rush. That allowed the linebackers to concentrate on shutting down the run and the secondary to play lots of man-to-man coverage.
Nelson made it even easier, roaming the back like no one else in school history. He made game-saving tackles, bone-crushing hits and momentum-turning interceptions.
``He's the best I've ever seen at making up at that position,'' Meyer said. ``If you don't have that guy in that defense, you need to be a little more creative than you were a year ago.''
The Gators - who ranked sixth in the nation in scoring defense (13.5 points a game) and fifth in rushing defense (2.7 yards a carry) last season - could counter with more zone blitzes, more stunts along the defensive line and maybe more disguised coverages. But will it be enough to make up for all the losses?
``Sure enough, opponents are going to draw up schemes to attack our defensive losses,'' Joiner said. ``You just have to have somebody step in and play just like Reggie Nelson. ... We're the University of Florida. We have to have guys step in and play the position the same way now. That's what our coaches are expecting us to do.''
Easier said than done.
The Gators have several players eager to step in, though. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe are poised to take over for Brandon Siler and Earl Everett. Cornerbacks Markus Manson and Markihe Anderson are trying to replace Ryan Smith and Reggie Lewis. And a host of defensive linemen, many of them freshmen, are getting a shot at playing time.
``We've got a lot of young talent. They just need to get used to college football and get some discipline and they're going to be good,'' Harvey said. ``Give us some time and I think we're going to be real good on that side of the ball.''

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