With the Orange and Blue Debut in the rear view, the Florida Gators football team enters the doldrums of the off-season. The team will workout together through the off season with the strength and conditioning staff but Jim McElwain and his coaching staff are solely focused on recruiting with the spring evaluation period beginning.
With that in mind Gator Country will go over where the current roster stands, what the depth chart looks like, and how the 13 incoming freshmen will fit in at their positions when they arrive on campus in June.
So far we’ve covered quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, defensive ends, defensive tackles, linebackers, tight ends, cornerbacks and offensive linemen. Today we turn our focus to the other half of DBU and the safeties.
RS Senior — Marcus Maye
RS Junior — Nick Washington
RS Junior — Marcell Harris
Freshman — Chauncey Gardner
Questions heading into spring
How do you replace Keanu Neal? The talented junior started the last two seasons for the Florida Gators and was one of the steadiest members of a very talented secondary group. Neal made a tough decision to leave school early for the NFL, but saw his decision justified when the Atlanta Falcons selected him in the first round. Florida has a lot of experience at the position, and Marcus Maye’s return helps, but who can replace Keanu Neal? Or, maybe the real question — is there anyone that can truly replace Neal?
What we learned
Marcus Maye had one of the best seasons of any safety in the country last year and was named an All-American by Pro Football Focus. If Maye had chosen to leave school early Florida would be in dire straights on the back end. Fortunately, Maye returned for his senior season and put together a very solid spring. Maye’s breakout redshirt junior season looked less like a one-hit wonder and more of a sign of things to come based on his play in the spring.
Next to him the Gators really tried to sort things out. To put it frankly, there isn’t one player on the roster that can truly replace Keanu Neal. Neal wasn’t able to truly replace Matt Elam the first year he started either. Geoff Collins tried a lot of different personnel at safety, with veterans Nick Washington and Marcell Harris getting most of the first team looks. Washington looks to be ahead slightly at this moment. He’s a smart player and really flashed at times for the Gators this spring. It was by far the best Washington has looked since he’s been on campus. Marcell Harris also showed improvement. Harris has had to wait a long time to get this kind of opportunity at safety and it appears that he’s in a place mentally to really go after it. Harris and Washington don’t have just each other to worry about battling for reps, freshman Chauncey Gardner made the move to safety after he enrolled early and looked comfortable at his new position.
Harris and Washington have struggled in the past in deeper coverage. Both players are very physical and have no issues coming up and helping against the run, but at times in the past have gotten lost in coverage. That’s an area that improved in the spring but needs to continue improving before the season begins. Gardner, who played cornerback in high school, shows good footwork and range in coverage. In the spring the experience that Harris and Washington possess kept them in front of Gardner, who is still learning the interstices and nuances of the defense.
Florida will also welcome to freshmen into the fold this summer. Quincy Lenton, from Meridian Mississippi, is a bruising football player who won’t be afraid to go down in the box and mix it up. Jeawon Taylor, from Montgomery, Alabama, shows a lot of range and coverage ability. Both freshmen will have some work to do in the weight room when they arrive on campus but should be special teams contributors early on in their careers.
Safety is a position where you need a clear line of communication and cohesion between the two players on the field. Maye and Neal had great chemistry on the field last year and the only way to really build that up again is to get more live reps and more time in the film room with the new players. Maye, Neal and Harris have spent a lot of time together over the years, but need to continue building that playing relationship that will help them on Saturdays.
The race to see who will start next to Maye is not over. Really, all three guys have the opportunity to earn meaningful reps and Gardner, Harris and Washington all will contribute at safety in 2016.