The Florida Gators defense is battling with youth this season after losing so much to the 2017 NFL Draft. No unit felt the effects of that more than the defensive backs.
Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye all left to make plays on Sunday’s. Then, redshirt senior Marcell Harris suffered a season ending injury before the start of fall camp.
Aside from the unexpected loss of Harris, Florida knew what it was losing in the secondary, and recruited accordingly. The Gators brought in six freshmen defensive backs this year to reload and work to continue the DBU tradition.
“Like I say, every year people count us out – the DBs – because we always lose great guys,” said redshirt senior Nick Washington. “And every year, you know, we always come back with just as much talent.”
Several of those freshmen were tested on the biggest stage of their lives at AT&T Stadium against Michigan. There was no warm up game to ease them into it and point out weaknesses, just real, big-time college football.
It might not have been the best-case scenario for Florida’s young players, but it was a game to provide valuable experience moving forward.
“I was happy with more than anything how they kind of stepped up to the moment,” said head coach Jim McElwain. “It was by no means too big for them. That’s one of the things you worry about a little bit with guys that have never played in that kind of environment. I think playing in that environment is something that’s really going to help us down the road and with those young guys.”
As many as three freshmen defensive backs could be on the field at any given time for the Gators this season. That is a tough situation for defensive backs coach Corey Bell to navigate in his first season with Florida. Things are not always going to go to plan, but he has confidence his unit will continue to progress as the season moves forward.
“Very excited about it,” Bell said. “You get a chance to mold it, mold that young talent and put them in position, you know, so they can continue to grow and learn, not only form their mistakes but from their successes. It’s a very unique situation for me, for us and for the young guys, but it’s just about them going out there and executing and having fun. They need to have fun playing the game.”
While their play wasn’t perfect, Florida’s secondary looked to be one of the strongest units on the team on Saturday, despite being the youngest. Back-to-back pick sixes from senior Duke Dawson and freshman CJ Henderson in the first half were likely the only reason the game was not a replay of the 2016 Citrus Bowl matchup with the Wolverines.
The issues appeared in a couple of miscommunications, the costliest coming on a zone handoff between Marco Wilson and Shawn Davis.
Michigan tested Florida’s youth in the defensive backfield whenever possible. This one came right after Washington left the game for a few plays with after tweaking his shoulder. With the veteran out and the newbie (Davis) in, the Wolverines challenged the Gators’ zone defense and came away with a 46-yard touchdown pass.
“They had a busted coverage and they didn’t communicate, and a big play happened, which will happen to anyone, whether you’re young or you’re old,” Washington said on the play. “Communication is always key.”
Mistakes go hand in hand with youth, but Washington said all of these freshmen are mature enough to have short memories. Whether it be in practice or the few issues in last week’s game, they do not let one play define them. That is something that can’t be taught.
“He’s just willing to learn,” Washington said on Davis. “Whenever he messes up or has questions, he’s willing to ask. He’s not afraid to make plays. He has confidence when he’s on the field.”
“Just being confident in their play and like I said knowing what to do, and not being afraid to make mistakes,” he continued. “If we make mistakes, we’re all there for each other. That’s a big thing. Your first game you don’t want to go out there and embarrass yourself and embarrass everyone else, but it’s not about that. It’s about going out there and playing fast.”
As one of the only veterans of the bunch, Washington is forced to not only take on his own responsibilities, but worry about the responsibilities of the guys around him. In his final year at Florida, he is taking the leadership role head on.
“Well, it is a challenge,” Bell said. “Nick is one of those guys that have been great, not only as a player, but as a young man. He takes those guys under his wing and help them to transition, put them in the right spot on the field, communicating with those guys. It helps them to process information and encourages them to play faster.”
As the season goes on, the pressure for this secondary to make strides will continue to rise. If the offense in the Michigan game is any indication to how this year will play out, the defense might have to step up to keep the Gators in games once again in 2017.
Opposing offenses will continue to test Florida’s youth, but Bell believes his freshmen are setting themselves up for success.
“Just the way they attack things, just the way they approach practice each and every day, and their willingness and receptiveness to be coached and be coached differently than they were in high school,” Bell said. “I’m very demanding and respect technique and all those type of things, and they understand that and they don’t have any issues with that. We all have flaws and they’re working to work through those and overcome those things. So, it’s a continuing process, but they’re buying in which is great.”