After the Florida Gators close out the season against Michigan in the Peach Bowl this Saturday, a lot of jobs will be up for grabs for next year’s team. Among those is the nickelback (or star) position as junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has already declared his intention to enter the NFL Draft.
As of now, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham hasn’t made any decision as to who will take over that starting role, but he did mention Amari Burney, Marco Wilson, Trey Dean and C.J. McWilliams as the prime candidates he will consider when the time comes.
“I don’t know if that’s really etched in stone as far as who will be that guy,” Grantham said. “I think the biggest thing is we’ll kind of evaluate all those guys as say outside corners, inside playing the star position or you’re playing the safety and then the star, to just see what kind of combination of players gives us the best chance to be productive.”
Burney certainly fits the description. He’s big, but still insanely athletic, and the freshman showed out in his opportunities on defense late in the season.
Even if he doesn’t ultimately land at nickelback, his future at Florida looks bright. Burney was one of several young guys who really seemed to take advantage of the increased workload in the bowl practices throughout the month of December.
That may just pay off down the road when he is battling for a place on the field next year.
“I think he really has a lot of position flexibility,” Grantham said. “He’s really fast. He’s a smart kid, very conscientious, has got good instincts, he can run, brings a physical presence when he tackles you. The biggest thing I see with him is positional flexibility. I think he can play the position he’s playing now. I think he can play linebacker too. I think it’s just a matter of how do we get our best 11 players on the field. I think he’ll certainly be a guy that will challenge for one of those spots.”
As Gardner-Johnson gets ready to step away from the program after excelling at the position for a season under the new coaching staff, he is confident it will be left in good hands, especially if Burney does take over.
“He’s going to be a playmaker,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Burney can play. Burney’s an all-around athlete, so anything they put him at. He’s big. He can play linebacker. He can play DB. He can run. He probably can play receiver, too … I’m ready for him to excel next year.”
This season was one that truly tested the Florida secondary, but it persevered through a ton of adversity. With young talent like Burney coming into the mix, guys like Dean developing even more and Wilson returning from injury, there is a lot to look forward to next year and in the years to come.