SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Not even Urban Meyer gave Florida much of a chance following Marcus Thomas’ dismissal.
“At a lot of places, you take away a player like Marcus and you’re in reverse,” Meyer said.
But what the coach of the No. 2 Gators has found out during the past two months is this: Florida is just fine without the defensive tackle. The Gators’ retooled rush defense is No. 1 in the Southeastern Conference and No. 6 nationally as it prepares for Ohio State in the national championship.
“We knew we wouldn’t miss a beat,” said converted nose guard Steven Harris. “We didn’t think it was going to be a problem at all.”
On Nov. 4, skeptics would have laughed at such a notion and for good reason. On the same day the Gators struggled against Vanderbilt, the team announced it would play the remainder of its season without Thomas. The senior tackle recorded four sacks and 26 tackles in limited action while serving as the line’s undisputed leader. But he was suspended a total of three games after testing positive for marijuana twice. When Thomas refused to comply with strict post-suspension guidelines, the Gators kicked him off the team.
Surprisingly, there has been no dropoff.
The reasons? Harris and fellow tackle Joe Cohen.
Lately, the two have played the best football of their careers. Harris and Cohen have combined for 15 tackles the last two games, highlighted by a stifling effort against Arkansas Heisman Trophy finalist, tailback Darren McFadden, in the Southeastern Conference Championship.
“They stepped up when they had to,” linebacker Brandon Siler said. “It’s big what our team has accomplished up front. We’ve shut down a lot of running games. A guy that was up for the Heisman – we held him to (73) yards. It would be hard to believe that our defense would be as good as it is knowing that we lost one of our best linemen.”
Despite playing without Thomas for eight games, the Gators only surrender 74.5 rushing yards a game. Contrast that to Louisiana State, which was No. 2 in the SEC with a clip of 93.2 yards per game before Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl.
Give Siler an assist for the seamless transition.
Seeing that some of his teammates were down following Thomas’ departure, he imparted upon them a heavy dose of optimism.
“I talked to them and I was like, ‘We all right. It’s all right. We have to deal with what we have to deal with,’” Siler recalled. “I went up to Steve and I said, ‘Everybody’s sad and real upset, Steve, but let me check this out and see if we’re all right – Can you play football?’ He answered, ‘Yeah, I can play.’ So then I said, ‘All right, we’ll be fine.’”
Harris has filled in for Thomas directly at nose guard. Cohen, meanwhile, has simply excelled at the tackle spot he had held all along.
The two say the reason they haven’t missed Thomas has everything to do with playing time.
“The more you can get in against an opponent, the more you can get a feel for the game and that’s all it was for Steve and me,” Cohen said. “It was hard to get into a rhythm with all the rotating we were doing so Marcus could play.”
By remaining on the field for extended stretches, Cohen and Harris have been able to notice – and take advantage of – tendencies in opposing linemen. This had been impossible with the minimal playing time they were getting while Thomas was playing.
“They deserve it,” defensive lineman Ray McDonald said. “(Joe and Steven have) been through a lot since they’ve gotten here, just like all of us. They deserve to get on the field and show everybody what they can do.”