Before spring practice began, Gator Country took a look at the top eight position battles to keep an eye on during spring practice. Now that spring is over, we’ll take a look at how those position battles played out over the past couple weeks.
In part two of the eight part series, we take a look at the safety position.
Even the most casual fan can tell you that the Gators lost a lot at this position last season. Replacing both Matt Elam and Josh Evans is more than just replacing numbers on a stat sheet. The Gators also need to replace two veteran leaders and an emotional spark plug in Elam.
While the Gators have a wealth of talent in the secondary, there wasn’t one player that took advantage of their opportunity this spring and seized a starting spot.
In his last press conference of the spring, Will Muschamp expressed just that.
“We’ve got to sure up some things at the safety position,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got to become more productive. We’ve got to be better communicators in getting us aligned and getting us in the right looks.”
Muschamp asks a lot of out his safeties when it comes to communicating.
“I think, number one, in our defense, the linebacker and safety position, you’ve got to be a really good communicator. We’re going to check things based on formations, receivers’ splits, sets, whatever it is,” Muschamp said. “You’ve got to be able to communicate the calls to get us in the right situation. That’s number one.”
With no clear-cut starter at either spot, let’s look at how each player performed this spring and what the position will look like moving forward.
Riggs was listed as one of the starting safeties heading into spring practice. Originally a cornerback, Riggs was cross-trained prior to last season at safety. Riggs missed most of last season with a foot injury but that didn’t stop him from getting into the weight room.
Riggs has transformed his body and is now listed at 184 pounds. While Riggs now passes the eye test, he battled a hamstring injury that caused him to miss some spring practice, including the Orange and Blue Debut.
Listed as the other starting safety across from Riggs, Gorman was able to hold on to that starting spot throughout the spring.
Gorman is now in his third season and is one of the more experienced players in the secondary having seen action in 25-of-26 games since he’s been on campus.
Muschamp expressed his confidence in Gorman this spring and he’s definitely a player that could earn playing time, if not an outright starting spot at safety this fall.
“There’s no question, he has had a bunch of at bats,” Muschamp said of Gorman. “He has had turns and reps to be able to do those things, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jabari.”
Watkins is an interesting player. He has played mainly at cornerback during his time in Gainesville but he is another player who can play multiple spots.
“Obviously we do have a little luxury of Jaylen being able to play safety if we needed him to,” Muschamp said. “But we’d like for him to be able to play some nickel and corner and obviously some sub-safety like we did last season. He was very effective for us.”
Following the spring game, Muschamp announced that Watkins would be moving to safety in the fall. Whether this is a move to make space at cornerback with Vernon Hargreaves III arriving on campus in the summer or if Muschamp is just looking to move players from a position of strength to a position of uncertainty remains to be seen.
One thing is certain. Watkins will see a lot of playing time in 2013. Where he will get those snaps is still up in the air.
Poole is a player who was very impressive this spring. He worked mainly at cornerback and in the nickel and dime packages but he is a versatile player who could fill in at safety if need be.
Poole was a player who stood out during the two open practices and again in the Orange and Blue Debut. Poole has quick feet, fluid hips and great recovery speed. He’s a sound tackler and that is something that Muschamp wants from every player in the secondary.
Gator fans saw Loucheiz Purifoy make a significant jump in playing time and production from his freshman to sophomore year and Poole looks poised to make that same jump this season.
Throughout the spring, Muschamp singled out Maye as a player who did some nice things in practice.
It’s easy to forget about Maye, who suffered an injury while playing basketball in high school and was forced to redshirt his first season on campus.
“Nobody likes to be injured,” Maye said. “So I had to deal with that. But I got back, did a lot of rehab, stayed up and had a positive mindset about everything.”
Maye was able to come back and contribute on the scout team last season and while he couldn’t play in games, he was still able to sit in on meetings and get in the playbook.
Maye is an interesting player to watch progress through the summer and into fall camp.
From what we saw of spring practice, Showers has fallen a bit behind in this position battle. With the injury to Riggs, Showers had a great opportunity to step in and earn a starting spot. He wasn’t able to do that this spring but he will continue to battle throughout the summer and fall.
With no one player stepping up and taking a starting role this spring, the door has been left wide open for the three freshmen safeties. Marcell Harris, Keanu Neal and Nick Washington will all get an opportunity to earn playing time once they arrive on campus in the fall.
The three freshmen will inject a new sense of competitiveness into the position battle and all three are more than capable of playing right away. This coaching staff has shown that they’re not afraid to play freshmen and insists that the best 11 will start.
While the position battle is far from over at safety, coach Muschamp has a simple philosophy when it comes to playing time.
“I kind of look at it this way, the production speaks for itself. If a guy is making plays and not creating negative plays for our football team, that’s why the playing decisions are out of my hands. It’s in the players’ hands,” Muschamp said. “All we really base everything off is production, whether it’s positive or negative. Generally, those guys who make a bunch of plays are guys I kind of like.”