They are the quarterbacks of the defense, the last lines of defense and in 2013 Florida will have to replace both of their safeties from last season.
It’s a position head coach Will Muschamp is well versed in – he played it in college – and the holes Florida will need to plug in the middle of its defensive backfield are large. The heat seeking missile and fan favorite, Matt Elam earned praise for his instinctive play last season, co-safety Josh Evans led the team in tackles last year and both are now members of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. With their departure comes uncertainty and concern from their former head coach.
“Obviously we’re not as good at the safety position in spring. Very concerned heading into fall camp with those question marks up the middle of your defense,” Muschamp said.
The question marks stem from the level of responsibility placed on safeties in Muschamp’s defensive system. When watching on film, it’s easy to see Evans switching up coverage pre-snap after analyzing an offense’s formation last season. The ability to do that well is not something a player acquires overnight.
“We put a lot on our safeties as far as making adjustments and running our defense and things they’ve got to do,” Muschamp said.
Despite the challenge, one projected starter at safety isn’t phased by the task.
““I played a lot of safety last year and in the spring game going into last year. It’s really not that hard and watching Matt [Elam] and Josh [Evans] gave me a perfect example of how to do it the right way. Last year was a little hard to get used to but this year I’m more comfortable. I’m excited for it,” junior Cody Riggs said.
Riggs was used primarily in nickel packages last season, that experience bodes well for his success this year. Next to Riggs, fellow junior Jaylen Watkins is projected to start at the other safety position. Watkins is a leader in the film room, taking to the helm when the DBs watch tape as a group. The mental side of the game is something very important to Watkins.
“I ask why would we call that to get a better understanding of why we would call that because I trust all the calls. Out there, if a call is made in the secondary as a group and it’s wrong, it’s easy to challenge it when you know what’s going on,” Watkins said.
Some don’t catch on to the complex schemes as quickly as others, and at times the defensive playbook can look like it’s written in another language to some.
“At first it was like Chinese words. But in due time you get used to it. One thing these young guys have to do is take mental reps when the older guys are going, you can’t loaf around doing nothing in your own little world, you have to know what’s going on each play and take mental reps,” sophomore Jabari Gorman said.
Muschamp’s aggressive style of defense necessitates mastery of his system. If a player is too busy thinking he won’t be able to react, the goal of maximum physicality cannot be achieved. It’s one thing to excel in the film room, or perform well in spring, it’s another to do it right when 21 other bodies are in motion on a fall Saturday.
The challenge of playing safety is immense, but the task is understood by those that must perform, especially Watkins.
“For the safeties, you definitely have to know what you’re doing because you’re the last line of defense. If you have a hiccup, it’s a touchdown whereas if a d-lineman makes a mistake, we can pick them up.”