Joe Haden came to Florida after playing quarterback in high school. The only problem with that was there was some guy named Tim Tebow throwing passes for the orange and blue. He moved to receiver but found some guy named Percy Harvin ahead of him on the depth chart there as well.
With a thirst to get on the field quickly, Haden tried out cornerback. He became the first true freshman to start at the position in his first game and turned that position change into a national championship, All-American teams, while going on to be the No. 7 selection in the 2010 draft and has since become a Pro Bowl player for the Cleveland Browns.
Now, another Maryland product wants to follow in the footsteps of his “big cousin.”
Jalen Tabor shocked the recruiting world when he chose Arizona over Alabama during the Under Armour All-American game but that commitment was barely three days old when he flipped and decided to become a Gator. With a history of flipping and a rash of decommitments for the Gators this past week, fans might wonder if Tabor is solid in his commitment.
“I’m full with the University of Florida. It’s where I want to be,” Tabor said. “It’s a lot closer to home; my family can come and see me play. I’m very excited with the defensive backs coach, Coach T-Rob [Travaris Robinson]. This is where I want to be, where I want to go to school at.”
Tabor will leave his home in Washington, DC on Sunday night to enroll in classes on Monday. The five-star cornerback said that on top of his relationship with the coaches, proximity to his home and relationship with Gator Great Joe Haden, there was another thing that stood out to him about Florida.
“It’s a good fit for me,” he said. “I feel like they have a void and a need at cornerback and I can come in and fill that void.”
Tabor has a good relationship with Haden and the two have spoken about what Tabor can expect when making the move from Maryland to Gainesville.
“He just told me it’s a great spot,” Tabor said of Haden. “He said that he felt like a lot of his success was because of the University of Florida and I definitely heard him out on that. You’re going to go down there and learn football, you’ll have your fun but it’s going to be serious because you’re playing in the SEC every week. He said the Gator Nation is crazy.”
Tabor wants to honor Haden and motivate himself by wearing the same number (5) that Haden made popular while in Gainesville. With Marcus Roberson vacating the #5 jersey when he left early for the NFL, it appears that Tabor will get his wish.
“He (Haden) said he wanted me to keep it right and represent it,” Tabor said. “He wore it and he had a great career there … I mean, seventh pick in the draft, it’s hard to beat that. It’s just an honor to wear it and follow in his footsteps. I feel like he’s passing it on to me and I gotta keep it going.”
Haden set a high bar at Florida but Tabor uses his career with the Gators as an example saying, “If I come anywhere close to what he did then my career at the University of Florida will be a success.”
Tabor is a nice kid off of the field. He’s laid back and down to earth. On the football field, however, Tabor can talk with the best of them and enjoys getting inside receivers heads.
“I feel like I talk to the receivers just to get him a little off his game and to pump myself up. I think it’s more of about pumping myself up than it is about getting him out of his game,” Tabor said. “I’m just trying to match his intensity. He knows where he’s going, I don’t know where he’s going but I know that if I’m doing what I gotta do I have a good shot of shutting him down.”
Playing cornerback can be lonely. Every mistake you make is magnified by a thousand because you’re often in man-to-man situations and when you’re beat it’s for a big gain. It’s why corners — like a closer in baseball — have play with a short memory and have a certain swagger to them. The swagger that Tabor plays with isn’t fake. This is, after all, a kid who has the Superman logo tattooed on his chest. Tabor plays with intensity and the confidence that is necessary when playing cornerback in the SEC. He also already has a pretty good knowledge of the challenge that awaits him in 2014.
“I want to improve on everything; my all-around game needs to get a lot better,” he said. “I’m going to be playing in the SEC. Some of the receivers I’m going up against are Amari Cooper, Dorial Green-Beckham, Mitchell from Georgia, there’s a lot of good receivers I’m going to be going up against who have been there for two or three years and they know what to expect in the SEC.”
Moving from high school to college is difficult. The speed of the game is light years faster in college and as Tabor pointed out, the receivers are bigger, stronger and faster than he has ever seen before. Rather than get overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead he’s keeping his goals realistic.
“My main goal is to be the best player and the best person that I can be. I feel like if I can do that everything else will take care of itself,” Tabor said. “Just go 110% every play. I feel like if I can do those three things, just keep working hard and stay humble I feel like everything else will take care of itself.”
The recruiting process is over. He flirted with Arizona but found the school for him in Gainesville. He’ll enroll early and told Gator Country that he can’t wait to get into the weight room with Jeff Dillman and start working out with his new teammates. He also had a message for Gator Nation about the kind of persona and player that they can expect to see wearing number five for the next couple of seasons.
“The Florida Gators fans can expect hard work, intensity, passion for the game, a player that loves to play the game,” he said. “And a player that loves to be a Florida Gator every snap,”
Following in Haden’s footsteps is no easy task, those are giant shoes to fill. Tabor will fill his old jersey first, then focus on matching Haden’s career production.