Rob Bolden took the snap and quickly scanned the field as Darious Cummings and Alex McCalister closed in. Bolden threw the ball off of his back foot and into the waiting arms of Duke Dawson, who took the interception back 36-yards for a score.
One game in Dawson appeared to be equal to the more heralded five-star cornerback, and fellow early enrollee, Jalen Tabor. Dawson made one start as a freshman and played in 10 games. His progression, however, was slowed by indecision on the coaching staff. That indecision led Dawson to bounce back and forth for cornerback, nickel back and safety.
He accounted for 14 tackles as a freshman but just five as a sophomore and he watched Tabor and Quincy Wilson collect headlines and notoriety from the sidelines. The frustration mounted in a sophomore year that saw Dawson used less and less. As Wilson and Tabor shined and found homes at cornerback, Dawson dealt with one coaching staff that saw him as a safety, only to have a new set of coaches want to go in a different direction. Geoff Collins and the Florida Gators coaching staff viewed Duke as a nickelback, but senior Brian Poole was entrenched there.
“I don’t read into what I did last year,” Dawson said. “I move on. That’s behind me. As long as I work hard and do what the team asks me to do, I feel like it’s going to be a great season.”
That hard work started to pay off towards the end of the 2015 season and with Poole gone, working towards making a NFL Roster, a door opened for Dawson and he’s running through it.
“Every day, I’m just really impressed with how he is excelling both at corner and at nickel,” head coach Jim McElwain said. “A guy that’s obviously going to play a ton.”
Dawson’s play was solid all spring, so much so that Chauncey Gardner, a talented four-star early enrollee cornerback, was quickly moved to safety at the start of spring practice. Dawson is 5-10 and 202 pounds. He’s plays a physical style of football, something that suits the position he’s playing where space is tight and he can get his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage. Dawson impressed all spring and then had the opportunity to show his progression in front of more than 30,000 fans at the Orange and Blue Debut.
Dawson picked off freshman Feleipe Franks twice, returning one for a touchdown.
“It felt good,” Dawson said of the interceptions. “It’s always nice to get your hands on the ball.”
Dawson’s career got off to a quick sprint then turned into a marathon. He’s had to learn to be patient, learn to be humble and those lessons are paying off in what he hopes will be a breakout season.
“Duke’s been awesome,” new defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. “He’s explosive, a very good player. He’s learning, gaining confidence. You can see him growing. I tell you, I’m excited about Duke’s progression.”