The list of great safeties in Florida football history is long but in recent memory there have been players like Tony Joiner, Reggie Nelson, Major Wright, Ahmad Black and Matt Elam.
Last season, Florida leaned on veterans Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins — two converted cornerbacks — to shoulder most of the load up top. While Watkins trains for a future in the NFL, Riggs and a few younger player will vie for a spot to become the next great safety at the University of Florida.
Do they have what it takes and where do they each stand heading into spring practice?
Holding Steady: Cody Riggs
2013 Stats: 51 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups
Riggs played a game and a half in 2012 due to an injury but came back in a big way for the Gators last season. He made the move from cornerback to safety full time out of necessity and tallied the fourth most tackles on the team. Riggs was the Gators’ best cover safety and produced well at a relatively new position for him.
He’s listed as holding steady because until someone unseats him he should be set to start at safety again for the Gators.
Strengths: A former corner, Riggs is the best cover man that Florida has at the position. He’s a smart player and has great leaping ability that makes up for his height. He’s a leader in the secondary and on the defense and a sound tackler.
Weaknesses: He doesn’t have ideal size for the position and while he is a solid tackler he isn’t really considered a hard hitter. Riggs was tossed out the Missouri game for an allegedly illegal hit but the new college targeting rules are a topic for a different day.
Moving Up: Keanu Neal, Jabari Gorman, Marcell Harris
2013 Stats: 5 tackles
Neal was a special team stalwart as a freshman but garnered the praise of both Will Muschamp and D.J. Durkin. He spent almost the entire season on special teams but was seemingly always around the ball and made some bone crushing hits on kick coverage.
Neal is my favorite to earn one of the two starting jobs at safety heading into the 2014 season. He’ll get an opportunity to shine this spring and will probably be atop the depth chart when spring practice rolls around.
Strengths: We haven’t seen Neal on defense in a while but he is an instinctual player. Neal is able to quickly diagnose plays and breaks quickly. He has great size for the position and brings the wood when he gets a full head of steam. He can play down in the box and reminds me a lot of Matt Elam.
Weaknesses: Neal needs to step up and be a vocal leader. Muschamp asks a lot of the safeties as far as lining people up and being vocal. Neal has the opportunity to become a leader and a starter on the team; he needs to realize that this spring.
2013 Stats: 48 tackles, 1 interception, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 7 pass breakups
Gorman played in all 12 games and made five starts at safety. He was tied for second on the team with 7 pass breakups and forced fumbles. Gorman was solid for the Gators when they needed him. He was sixth on the team in tackles and was an all-around contributor to the team in 2013.
Strengths: Gorman is a solid tackler who breaks down and wraps up the ball carrier. He’s good in coverage and has a knack for getting his hand on the ball and breaking up passes.
Weaknesses: Gorman is good in a lot of areas but not great in any. He doesn’t have great size and while he makes up for with his football IQ and technique, it still leaves something to be desired in his overall game.
2013 Stats: N/A
Harris had knee surgery before he enrolled at Florida and he never recovered properly from the surgery. He had to have an additional surgery to repair the knee and clean it up. He earned a redshirt during his first season on campus but he is a talented player who reminds a lot of a former Gator safety, Major Wright.
Harris is huge for the position at 6-2, 215.
Strengths: Harris is a huge hitter who throws his body around the field like a missile. He has great closing speed and blows people up when he connects. Harris has good ball skills and high points passes. He can wrestle 50-50 balls away from receivers and will fight for the ball in the air.
Weaknesses: We’ve described Harris as a missile and that may be his biggest weakness. Harris normally launches himself at ball carriers rather than breaking down and wrapping up. It leads to some incredible tackles but a lot of missed tackles as well. Muschamp won’t stand for missed tackles and it’s something that Harris will need to cut out if he wants to be a long-term starter.
Moving Down: Marcus Maye
2013 Stats: 16 tackles, 1 interception, 1 tackle for loss
Maye played in every game but he only made two starts. He started the first two games of the season but after getting beat for a long touchdown at Miami was hardly seen on defense again — only as a backup — and featured on special teams. Maye has great potential and obviously showed that to earn the starting job before losing it two weeks in.
Strengths: Maye is supremely athletic. He’s great in coverage and a sound tackler. He is always around the ball at the end of a play.
Weaknesses: Maye isn’t great in man coverage. He’s not really a safety that you can bring down in the box and have him cover tight ends or slot receivers man-to-man. The play where he was beat for a long touchdown against Miami showed his struggle with picking up a man after a defender in front of him passed him a long in zone coverage.