Following a 2007 season during which it surrendered 19 touchdowns and made just 11 interceptions, the Florida secondary was a major concern coming into the 2008 campaign.
Going into spring practice a year ago, the secondary had a new cornerbacks coach (Vance Bedford) to join veteran safeties coach Chuck Heater. Under Bedford and Heater, the secondary made strides in the spring. But over the summer, the loss of safety Dorian Munroe with an off-field injury had to be overcome. The forecast for the secondary going into the season remained guarded as cornerback Joe Haden and safety Major Wright approached their sophomore seasons.
Well, the optimism deserved to be guarded, all right, because opposing receivers were guarded like only one other Division IA school (Boston College). When the season ended with a 24-14 victory over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game, the Gators led the nation with the Eagles with 26 interceptions and surrendered just 11 passing touchdowns on their way to finishing third in the nation in pass efficiency with a 96.76 rating.
The Gators’ superb secondary play marked one of the most remarkable turnarounds by a unit in Florida football history. Florida faced seven teams which ranked in the nation’s Top 50 in scoring offense, including Oklahoma, which came into the BCS National Championship Game averaging 54 points a game.
Not only did the secondary’s play improve, but so did the entire defense. Florida finished 32nd in the nation with 34 sacks, many of them coverage sacks. And with the improved defense came improved offensive play.
Returning members of the Florida secondary entered the season with just four combined interceptions. First-year starting safety Ahmad Black was seventh in the country with seven interceptions, and he was among five defensive backs who had at least two interceptions.
Starters: Joe Haden (5-11, 185, junior), Janoris Jenkins (5-10, 185, sophomore).
Reserves: Wondy Pierre-Louis (6-1, 185, senior), Markihe Anderson (5-10, 182, senior), Adrian Bushell (5-10, 183, redshirt freshman), Jeremy Brown (5-10, 178, redshirt freshman).
The return of starting cornerbacks Haden and Jenkins is huge for a Florida squad that will be favored by many to repeat as Eastern Division champions. Haden was honored as a first-team cornerback on the College Football News all-sophomore team. The Associated Press and SEC coaches selected him to their second-team All-SEC squads. Jenkins was a first-team selection to the College Football News all-freshman team and the SEC coaches’ all-freshman team after starting 11 games, including the season opener against Hawaii.
The focus in spring practice will be to secure improvement in seniors Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis. Anderson has played a key role in the Gators’ zone package and on the Florida special teams. Pierre-Louis has started 16 games this season, including three games last season.
Freshmen Jeremy Brown and Adrian Bushell were both redshirted in 2008. Brown suffered a back injury in training camp that required extensive rehabilitation. He has tremendous upside because of his technique. Bushell is a terrific athlete and it will be exciting to see how he has improved under Bedford’s tutelage.
Starters: FS Major Wright (6-0, 200, junior), SS Ahmad Black (5-9, 190, junior).
Reserves: SS Will Hill (6-3, 205, sophomore), SS Dorian Munroe (5-11, 205, redshirt senior), FS Justin Williams (6-1, 205, redshirt junior), S Bryan Thomas (6-1, 205, redshirt junior), FS Dee Finley (6-1, 195, freshman).
The Gators return both safeties and key reserve Will Hill. Wright was much improved during his sophomore season. He picked off three passes and was an honorable mention selection on the College Football News all-sophomore team.
Black was absolutely sensational, earning second team All-SEC honors by the league’s coaches and the College Football News all-sophomore team. Black and Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes were tied for second nationally with two interceptions returns for touchdowns.
Hill improved throughout the course of the regular season and in post-season play. He is expected to receive numerous repetitions this spring, where the SEC all-freshman selection will come in weighing close around 210.
Munroe suffered a torn ACL last summer and missed the 2008 season. He is expected to be ready this spring and will get plenty of reps.
Williams moved from wide receiver to help shore up the depth concerns last August after the injury to Munroe. He might be asked to move back to the receiver position in hopes of helping the depth concerns there as well.
Bryan Thomas returned to the field after struggling early in his Florida career with knee injuries. He played on the Florida special teams and as a reserve at safety. Hopefully, Thomas will remain healthy and will improve through his repetitions in spring practice.
Finley is an early enrollee, who signed with the Gators a year ago. A lot of eyes will be on him this spring.
Next week: Offensive line.