The Florida Gators are revamping a defense that lost five key starters from one of the top units in the SEC a year ago. In 2015 defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was tasked with not missing a beat and keeping the defense playing at an elite level, but without those familiar faces back on the practice field this spring, Collins is having to move some pieces around to make everything fit.
Sophomore CeCe Jefferson is playing more defensive tackle than he did a year ago, trying to fill the void left by Jon Bullard whose versatility allowed Florida to rotate more players in and out during a game. Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson has moved from safety to linebacker and is adjusting to his new position this spring as well. One player that had been looked at and mentioned by fans as possibly making that same move is redshirt junior Marcell Harris.
“He’s just a big, physical kid. Once he gets downhill and we start inserting him in the box or inserting him on the edge, he’s a physical presence,” Collins said of Harris. “He’s athletic enough to cover slot receivers, to cover tight ends. But we trick him sometimes with some of the things we do to play MIKE linebacker – he doesn’t know that. But we’ll do some things…and he does a great job.”
Harris has heard the murmurs since his senior year of high school. Harris arrived at Florida listed at 6-1, 215 pounds. His size and tackling ability made many wonder if a move to linebacker was in his future. Collins comment was brought up to Harris, who wanted to make his feelings and intentions clear.
“I haven’t even heard that comment. But about that comment, I feel like I’m a safety and always will be a safety. I have never played middle linebacker,” he said. “With that being said, we have a lot of plays where we go down to the box and a lot of plays where the safeties rotate. So, we have to be down in the box.”
Harris has had to wait his turn. Jaylen Watkins Marcus Maye and Cody Riggs manned the safety spot in Harris’ freshman season in 2013. Keanu Neal emerged in 2014 as a sophomore, earning more playing time at safety, while Harris spent most of his redshirt freshman season on special teams.
“That’s one of the ways I got on the field,” Harris said. “It did get me looked at in a lot of ways but I want to be looked at in a different way, and that’s playing safety.”
Florida’s lack of depth at linebacker in 2015 forced Collins’ hand and left the Gators playing mainly nickel and dime packages. Fortunately for Harris, that opened the door for him to play safety when Maye slid down as the dime back. It was the most opportunity that Harris had on Saturdays since he’s been in Gainesville and the redshirt junior felt that he showed the coaching staff enough to earn more time in 2016.
“I feel like I played a lot,” he said. “Whenever I got in I made the plays I need to make and that’s what I had to do.”
Harris will still have to earn it. Coming off of his best season, Marcus Maye should have one of the starting safety roles locked up this fall. Maye is a senior and was arguably one of the best safeties in the country last season but the spot next to him is up for grabs. Harris and Nick Washington are the two competing for that spot and both of them have waited a long time for a door to open and playing time to be available.
“Competition level is very high. Every safety is out there trying to make a play,” Harris said. “It doesn’t matter if you play safety or cornerback; we’re all trying to make plays. Me and Nick, we’re going to come out and compete every day.”
Harris takes exception to being called or thought of as a linebacker and he should. He’s spent four years in Gainesville fighting off that perception and now, finally, when the opportunity to show that what he’s believed and known to be true his whole life is in front of him, he won’t waste time entertaining the idea that he’s anything other than what he’s always believed he is.
“The game has slowed down for me, honestly,” he said. “Now, I see a lot of things better and I’m moving better and I feel a lot better coming out of my breaks. So, this year for me, I feel like it should be one of the best.”
“I don’t see myself as a middle linebacker, a linebacker type,” he said. “I’m a safety and always will be.”