How Florida ended up so short on scholarship cornerbacks

If my accounting is correct, Florida has the initial counters available to bring in up to two transfers before the fall season begins. Others who cover the team have slightly different answers to that question, and probably no one outside the UF athletic department knows for 100% sure. However, “approximately two” is at least very close.

To see fans talk, they would want any additional portal help to come in the form of offensive linemen. I totally get that. I also know that it’s hard to find quality linemen in the portal.

Stewart Reese was something of a unicorn last year in that he was a graduate transfer who’d played for Dan Mullen and John Hevesy before. And while he was solid, his battles with injury and a lack of opportunity to gel with his teammates in the offseason meant he wasn’t a true game changer. Maybe he’ll make a bigger impact this year, but either way he was an exception. UF also wanted offensive line help two years ago. No one hit the portal that was going to compete for immediate playing time, and the 2019 line was a disaster.

If the Gators do use all of their transfer spots, they just might try for someone in a position that Mullen has yet to pull in from the portal: cornerback.

With Jahari Rogers deciding to transfer out earlier this week, Florida is down to six scholarship corners. Only Kaiir Elam and Jaydon Hill are upperclassmen, with two redshirt and two true freshmen filling out the position group.

How did this happen? Transition and attrition.

Mullen got four safeties but didn’t sign a corner in his 2018 transitional class if you take the recruiting sites at face value. Nominal wide receiver signee Justin Watkins probably would’ve started his career at corner, but he got himself kicked off the team after multiple arrests in the 2018 offseason.

Balance for roster management is notoriously difficult in transitional classes, and the situation wasn’t favorable for landing many corners in the ’18 cycle anyway. UF did lose Duke Dawson after 2017, but freshmen CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson appeared to lock down the starting spots for at least the two subsequent seasons. With no apparent openings on top of the depth chart for a while, getting big-time corners to come was never likely.

UF could’ve used the depth, though, as Wilson’s injury elevated true freshman Trey Dean from backup to starter at corner. Dean played more safety than corner in high school and as of last year is back to playing his more suited position of safety. Converted receiver Dre Massey was showing up on the depth chart at cornerback by the end of the season.

Mullen then went the other way with four corners and no safeties in 2019, but only two remain. Chris Steele left right after spring practice for reasons I don’t want to re-litigate, and Chester Kimbrough left after last year, ultimately for Michigan State. Kimbrough couldn’t have been happy with the playing time situation in 2020 with how much the top corners struggled and how relatively little he got a chance to get in the mix, and he also hit the portal less than a week after UF signed 247 Sports Composite 5-star Jason Marshall.

Without the attrition, Florida would have a senior in Watkins and a couple of juniors in Steele and Kimbrough to add to the upperclassman ranks. Of course if they were around, some number of the younger guys might not be due to recruits avoiding clogged depth charts as we saw in 2018. There is always that kind of path dependency when we’re talking about roster counterfactuals.

The bottom line is that Florida cannot afford to lose any of Elam, Hill, or Marshall. Rogers was easily the corner with the highest Composite rating in the 2020 class, but he’s gone. Avery Helm might’ve had a better ranking if not for an ACL tear as a high school junior, and he did get a few favorable reviews from spring practice leaks. Ethan Pouncey, also from the ’20 cycle, missed most of his senior year of high school to a hip injury and had hip surgery last fall as a true freshman. The other 2021 cornerback signee, Jordan Young, isn’t as college-ready as Marshall is. To be fair, most guys aren’t.

Thus it could make sense for Florida to try to recruit a cornerback transfer from the portal this year. Impact corners don’t come around a lot and might not want to battle Elam, Hill, and Marshall for playing time anyway, but a solid veteran to be the third or fourth option would be good insurance against disaster if Helm still needs a little more time to develop.

It helps that Star will pull from the safety ranks with Tre’Vez Johnson the presumptive starter there. JUCO transfer Diwun Black could be an option as well, thereby not further depleting the corner position as happened the last two years when Wilson spent time there.

Regardless, this is not the same situation as at defensive tackle, where the Gators signed none in 2018 and just one in 2019. Florida was signing corners all along, but they keep hitting the exit door for one reason or another. If the top three stay healthy then UF can make it through the season just fine, but we’ll see over the coming months how much Mullen is willing to gamble that misfortune won’t befall any of them.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2