The Florida Gators may have a stocked cupboard in their football secondary, but that doesn’t make safety coach/assistant defensive coordinator Chuck Heater’s job any easier.
Last spring, Heater faced constant questions about the depth at safety and whether he would be able to find suitable starters to put on the field. This year, he is having trouble figuring out how he’s going to keep any of his players off of it.
“All these guys are able players,” Heater said after Monday’s 12th practice of the spring. “But it’s rare that everyone is an equal player. That’s what we’re trying to sort out.”
Heater has to choose among returning junior starters Major Wright (6-0, 204) and Ahmad Black (5-9, 185), an experienced senior in Dorian Munroe (5-11, 205), and two young and versatile players in sophomore Will Hill (6-1, 202) and freshman Dee Finley (6-2, 211).
And that’s just at safety. And that’s before highly recruited freshman Joshua Evans enters the battle this summer.
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of experienced backs, and all of the guys that have played in the past are doing a solid job,” Heater said. “We’ve also got a strong influx of new players.”
Heater also likes how the competition is heating up at corner. Although junior Joe Haden (5-11, 190) and sophomore Janoris Jenkins (5-11, 188) hold down the two starting spots, the third corner will play a key part in the Gators’ defense. That position is still up for grabs.
“(Adrian) Bushell has done a nice job, and Wondy Pierre-Louis is an improved player from last spring,” Heater said. “They are all playing a lot, getting their reps and getting an opportunity to do some things. I feel good about potentially what our depth should be.”
Pierre-Louis has had the best spring practice of his career, Heater said. He is more consistent and focused. That pleasant surprise for Heater has been matched by the play of Bushell, a redshirt freshman from Texas.
“He’s a real instinctive player and a real aware player,” Heater said. “I think that’s an important quality in a corner, that he has awareness and instincts and plays without fear. He’s got a little bit of that going on, for sure.”
The other corners, junior Moses Jenkins – the Gators’ tallest corner – and Markihe Anderson are pushing for playing time as well. Each player in the secondary is making a strong case for himself.
Building up the backups and preparing them to play in the regular season is a must in the SEC where hard hits take tolls on players’ bodies throughout the season.
The Gators, Heater will remind you, are only in spring practices. Once they start summer practices, they won’t stop playing football again until January.
“You just hope that everyone in there plays quality, championship football,” Heater said. “That’s your goal – not just to get a bunch of guys ready to play, but to get a bunch of guys ready to go out there and win championships for you.”
Two years ago, that exact situation happened for Heater. Tony Joiner left the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas, and his substitute, Munroe, didn’t miss a beat in the relief effort.
Two years later, Munroe is back battling for playing time. He is recovering from an ACL injury from last summer, and Heater has seen his improvement.
The Gators have been experimenting with playing Munroe in their Cover 1 defense, in which the safety is responsible for the deep back of the field.
“He is definitely an option on Cover 1,” Heater said. “He’s a very fast athlete, and I think he is still getting his confidence back from his injury. I have no qualms about his play.”
Still, it will be very difficult for Munroe to start this season – or even be the third safety – because his primary competition is Hill. Hill has a huge advantage over every player in the secondary – he is versatile. On consecutive plays during Monday’s practice, Hill was lined up in the slot at corner and then as a Cover 1 safety. His ability to play anywhere will make it hard to take him off the field any time.
“Hill’s a very athletic guy,” Heater said. “He’ll come in for a coverage package and be predominantly a cover guy, and we’ll play him as a safety where he’s going up against the run. He’s an athletic guy, and he’s capable of doing both things.”
So how will Heater figure out the depth chart?
“We’re just going to get our best 11 guys out there at one particular time,” Heater concluded.
Sounds simple enough, if it was only that easy.