Florida Gators National Signing Day preview: defensive back

The defensive secondary is the last position grouping in this series on where Florida stands heading into National Signing Day. It’s a unit that is solid in some places and hazy in others. It might have the widest gap of any on the team between its floor and ceiling depending on how it develops.

The previous installments in this series looked at quarterback, running back, wide receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker.

All recruiting rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite, which balances recruiting rankings from all of the major services.

  • Departing: Marcell Harris, Duke Dawson, Nick Washington, Joseph Putu
  • Returning: JR Chauncey Gardner, JR Jeawon Taylor, RSO Quincy Lenton, RSO C.J. McWilliams, RSO McArthur Burnett, SO Marco Wilson, SO CJ Henderson, SO Brad Stewart, SO Shawn Davis, SO Brian Edwards, SO Donovan Stiner
  • Signed: Amari Burney, 4-star (0.9293); Trey Dean, 4-star (0.9222); John Huggins, 3-star (0.8858); Randy Russell, 3-star (0.8789)
  • Committed: None
  • Targets: Noah Boykin, 4-star (0.8916);

Similar to what happened with James Robinson, Randy Russell’s career is over due to a heart condition that will not allow him to play football. He will still receive a scholarship to UF, and his statement announcing his heart condition indicates that he intends to use that financial aid to pursue a degree. He will not count against the team’s 85-scholarship limit, but because he signed in December, he does count against the 25-scholarship cap for the 2018 class unless UF receives a waiver.

The defensive backfield in 2017 was about as young as it will ever get. It lost its leader in the fifth-year senior Harris before the season began, and the lack of upperclassmen got worse once Washington began missing time due to injury. The secondary will have more guys with experience playing in 2018, but it will still have a lot of youth around.

These are the only two things I know for sure about this year’s secondary: Wilson and Henderson will be the starting corners, and Gardner will start at safety. Everything else is up in the air.

Corner behind the two starters is probably the area with the most uncertainty. Edwards is the only other returning player who regularly appeared at the position on UF’s 2017 depth charts, and he didn’t register a single statistic last year.

That uncertainty opens the door for Boykin, should he sign, to join the rotation from the start. He’s a Washington, D.C. prospect who had been committed to Maryland, but he decommitted from the Terps less than a week after his official visit to Gainesville on January 19. Things are looking good for UF with him right now, but he’s not 100% a Gator yet.

The starting lineup at safety is less certain, but the cast of characters is more set. Taylor may have the upper hand at starting next to Gardner simply from having started last year, but he didn’t play well enough to say that he has the position locked down. Stiner got the start at safety against FSU when Taylor went down, while Davis and Stewart saw the field some as freshmen last year too.

Mullen said in his press conference after the December signing day that he prizes flexibility. In addressing the new secondary signees specifically, he cited Dean and Huggins as guys who can play both corner and safety. He even floated Burney and linebacker signee David Reese as guys who “are going to run like DBs but are going to have the size of linebackers”.

To that end, a number of the returning players have the possibility of playing multiple roles. Gardner was supposed to move back to his natural cornerback position last year until Harris’s torn Achilles ended that plan. Plus, Stewart and Davis were regarded as corner prospects coming out of high school but then spent last year as safeties.

It’s possible that we may see a more fluid situation in the defensive backfield this year, particularly in spring practice as the new staff figures out what it’s got. It certainly seems like there will be a big change in philosophy with the nickel spot. Last year’s strategy was to use Wilson, the team’s second-lightest defensive back by listed weight, whereas Mullen hinted at employing Burney or Reese in a safety/linebacker hybrid role.

There shouldn’t be as many breakdowns this year as there were last year. Wilson and Henderson, just like past freshman starters in the secondary such as Vernon Hargreaves and Joe Haden, still did get burned a few times while showing promise. They should be a lot better about that in their second years just like their predecessors were.

Still though, it’s likely that true freshmen like Dean, Burney, and Boykin (if he signs) will get some snaps this year. That will mean the potential for some blown coverages as they learn. Depending on how quickly they come along — and how well the older players can hold them off with good play of their own — will go a long way to determining how well the defense as a whole recovers from its nightmare 2017 season.