Friday we talked about how the Florida Gators defense will once again be called upon to be the breadwinner of the family while the offense grows and finds their identity. Florida’s defensive front seven is filled with players who may not have a lot of experience but have shown potential. The backend of the defense, however, is a different story. They may be young in spots, but Florida’s secondary is as veteran as they come and filled with guys who would be starts at just about any school in the SEC. The loss of JC Jackson, following off the field issues hurts, but the loss comes at a position that Florida was deep enough to take the blow and keep fighting.
Cornerback: Vernon Hargreaves III, Junior | Deiondre Porter, RS Freshman
The lone First Team All-American on the Florida Gators roster, Hargreaves returns for what will presumably be his last season at Florida. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Hargreaves was a freshman, picking off three passes in his first four games. Hargreaves has been named to the Nagurski and Bednairk Award Watch Lists and has taken a leadership role heading into his junior season. He’s been more vocal than he has in the past, taking younger players under his wing and bringing the best out of the defense.
Porter, like all of the cornerbacks, got a lot of reps this spring but didn’t quite live up to the guys ahead of him. Florida has trained their cornerbacks to play on both sides of the field and, right now, Porter appears to be just outside of that regular rotation.
Cornerback: Jalen Tabor, Sophomore | Quincy Wilson, Sophomore
Hargreaves has locked up a starting spot, this much we know, but on the other side of the field expect to see Tabor and Wilson split time evenly.
Tabor enrolled early and got a head start on the rest of his class. That resulted in early playing time for him during his freshman season. Tabor played in every game as a freshman, including five starts and led all freshmen with 31 tackles. He only managed one interception but it was a SportsCenter Top-10 worthy one-handed grab against Vanderbilt. Tabor was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week in Florida’s win over Tennessee, a game where he recorded five tackles, one for a loss, broke up a pass, forced and recovered a fumble.
Wilson also played in every game as a freshman, making two starts. His 22 tackles were second to Tabor among freshman and he too had one interception, in style. Wilson’s size is his biggest asset. He likes to jam receivers off of the line of scrimmage and he’s a very good tackler in open space.
Who starts between the two doesn’t matter. Both will get plenty of laying time this season and Florida needs both sophomores to play well.
The Rest: Chris Williamson, Freshman
Williamson as probably headed for a redshirt season but the departure of JC Jackson has opened up a window for him. A bigger cornerback, Williamson showed a propensity for physical play, jamming receivers at the line, in high school. He’s a very athletic players and sometimes relies on that too much. Williamson will need to work closely with Kirk Callahan on the finer points in his footwork but he could work his way into the rotation if Geoff Collins opens things up. Williamson could be an impact player on special teams due to his athleticism.
Nickel: Brian Poole, Senior | Quincy Wilson, Sophomore
Poole played some outside cornerback last season but he’s truly a nickelback. Poole plays well in the box and does a good job covering slot receivers, being able to stick with smaller, shiftier, quicker guys on the inside.
Wilson isn’t your typical nickel. He’s a bigger guy and, theoretically, he should struggle going up against smaller receivers. What makes the difference is Wilson’s technique. He has great footwork and flips his hips and accelerates well, especially for a player of his size.
Safety: Keanu Neal, Junior | Nick Washington, RS Sophomore
Neal took over a starting safety spot last year and initially there were some communication issues. That was to be expected with the amount of information the previous coaching staff lumped on the safeties and Neal’s inexperience. He did get much better communicating as the season went on and turned out a nice season with 45 tackles and three interceptions.
Nick Washington was featured mainly on special teams as a redshirt freshman but he did play in all 12 games. Washington is beginning to look more comfortable at safety but with the talent that Florida has behind him, it’s not likely that he will have a big role on the defense this season. Washington will continue to contribute the most on special teams.
The Rest: Kylan Johnson, Freshman
Johnson is a very big safety (6-1, 220). Due to Florida being pretty set at safety Johnson is a guy that could redshirt this season. At his size, a move to linebacker may not be out of the question down the road. It’s easy to look at the depth at linebacker and safety and say, move him now, but Neal and Maye could be gone after this season and then Florida is back to being low at safety. I think Johnson will stick with safety and if he avoids a redshirt in 2015 it will be in a special teams role.
Safety: Marcus Maye, RS Junior | Duke Dawson, Sophomore
Maye was frequently in and out of the doghouse with the former staff for his play on the field. He looked good in the spring and certainly locked down the starting spot across from Neal. After missing the first game of the season in 2014, Maye played in the next 11 contests, making nine starts. He had 62 tackles, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles to finish off the best year of his career.
Dawson came to Florida as a cornerback but has played all over the secondary. The move to safety became permanent during the season but he still worked as a nickel and a dime in the spring. Dawson played in 11 games as a freshman, including one start at safety. He became the first true freshman to return an interception for a touchdown in his first game since Janoris Jenkins. Dawson’s versatility will ensure that he sees plenty of playing time in 2015.
The Rest: Marcell Harris, RS Sophomore
Everyone in the secondary seemed to get a ton of reps in the spring with the exception of Harris. Harris has the size and skill set to be a great player, it’s puzzling that he hasn’t been able to put it all together yet.
Dime: Duke Dawson, Sophomore | Marcus Maye, RS Junior
When Florida goes into their dime package expect Dawson or Maye to be on the field filling the role. Both players can play man-coverage as well as drop back and cover in zone.