It’s easy to forget sometimes that Joe Haden is still learning. When he enrolled at Florida in January 2007, he was a player without a position.
That fall, he found himself the first freshman ever to open the season at cornerback for the Gators. He hasn’t missed a game since – starting all 26 games Florida has played the last two seasons.
“You can’t ever learn to much as a corner,” Haden said after Florida’s 13th practice of the spring Wednesday. “You always have to study film, and you always can get better. Two years is definitely not enough.”
You also can’t work too hard as a cornerback on this team, where the depth in the secondary ensures that no spot is safe.
Even Haden, a staple of the secondary, will not let himself get complacent.
“When I go home (after practice),” he said, “plays flash through my head. I am always thinking about how to get better. I’m always thinking about football.”
The competition is friendly, Haden said, but it extends well beyond the football field. When they have some time off, the players in the secondary like to go bowling. Haden said he’s not that good, but he has goals.
“Markihe (Anderson) thinks he’s the best at everything – cars, bowling, video games,” he said. “So I would just like to whoop him.”
Haden isn’t so sure if he’ll ever accomplish that goal – he only averages 130 – but he is confident about his goals for the football field.
“I’m not trying to be the best cornerback on my team,” Haden said. “I’m trying to be the best cornerback in America. In trying to get to those goals of being an All-American, the competition against my teammates makes me better.”
Considered on of the top quarterbacks in the nation at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md., Haden could be satisfied with the progress that he has made. Instead, as his instincts take over, he is setting those lofty goals for himself.
In the games this fall, the safeties, linebackers and defensive line will help Haden reach them. He credits the team with enabling him to take chances.
“In my first year,” Haden said, “I was just trying to get lined up straight. Now I’m just trying to make plays.”
“If you know that you’ve got a safety over top, you can jump some routes underneath,” Haden continued. “That just makes you so much more confident, that if you go for the ball and miss it, someone has your back.”
Haden remembers vividly a moment just a few months ago when Major Wright bailed him out. Haden lined up against Oklahoma’s Manny Johnson in the BCS National Championship Game and got burned on a double move.
More than a few yards behind and trying to recover, Haden saw Major Wright breaking for Johnson and then saw the biggest hit of his life – Johnson had to leave the game for the next few plays. The pass fell incomplete.
The memories of the title game motivate Haden, but only when he thinks about how much better the defense can get.
“We are going to try and be record-breaking,” Haden said. “With all the experience we have and with the depth at each position, there is no reason why we shouldn’t keep everybody to limited yards. We want shutouts.”
Haden reminds himself that it is still the spring. He doesn’t know how much time he’ll play in the Orange and Blue Debut, but he wants to get an interception before he gets pulled. Then he will come back this summer and work on all of his other goals.
“I’m not going to get comfortable,” he said. “I’m going to get better.”
When Joe Haden was little, his father told him to be the best at everything he tried. Two years after his first snap at corner, he isn’t there yet. But he will never stop trying.