September 3 is right around the corner, which means the Florida Gators football season is in sight. The Gators will soon be taking newly named, Steve Spurrier-Florida Field for the first time.
As we impatiently await the arrival of football season, Gator Country will grade all of Florida’s position groups to get a better idea of where each group stands coming into the 2016 season.
This series will start off right with a Florida favorite, defensive back.
Defensive back is a position the Florida Gators take great pride in. The position has had talent abound over the last decade. Gator greats, such as Matt Elam, Ahmad Black, Joe Haden, and Major Wright all led Florida in building a dynasty in the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal have been the faces of the Florida secondary the last few years. With the two first round draft picks gone to the NFL, Florida will have to rebuild and find a way to replace their talents. Laying claim to ‘DBU’ is at stake for the Gators this season.
POSITION GROUP GRADE: A
Even with the losses suffered to the NFL, the Gators return one of the best (if not the best) secondaries in the nation. You may ask why doesn’t the best secondary in college football get an A+? It all comes down to depth and experience. The Gators are loaded with talent in the secondary, but are short on depth this season. There is very little game experience for any player at free safety and nearly no experience behind the Gators’ starting cornerbacks.
Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are both potential first round picks at cornerback. Tabor is an All-American caliber player, who that can matchup with the top receiver of any team. His speed and agility has made him one of the top defensive backs in the country, and put his name on numerous watch lists coming into the season. Tabor has the potential to be even better than his former star counterpart, Vernon Hargreaves III. Wilson is the more physical player of the two, and can rough up receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Duke Dawson is taking over for Brian Poole this season at the nickelback position. Dawson made tremendous strides this spring, finally getting the opportunity to come into a starting role as a junior. He has great instincts and the dexterity to make big plays for the Gators this season.
Unfortunately, the Gators are lacking in experience behind this group of three. The possible backups have seen little to no time on the field for Florida. The top two candidates for backups will likely be Chris Williamson and Joseph Putu, a sophomore and a JUCO transfer. Behind them are two true freshmen, McArthur Burnett and Christopher McWilliams, who have not proven to be mentally or physically ready to play defense at the college level just yet. This lack of depth means it is imperative for Tabor, Wilson, and Dawson to stay healthy this season, so they can be on the field for as many snaps as possible.
The Gators return All-American safety Marcus Maye, for his redshirt senior season. Maye had his breakout season in 2015, and looks to have an even better 2016. Last season, Maye recorded 82 total tackles and forced five fumbles. He has been in the program for a long time and knows the defense as good as anybody. His return is huge, giving the Gators an established leader at strong safety.
There is still no clear-cut starter to play free safety next to Maye this season. As of now, it looks as though Nick Washington is in the lead for the starting position coming into the season. Washington is a smart, physical player, but has struggled with blown coverages at times. A similar player, Marcell Harris, has been Washington’s biggest competitor.
Look for former 4-star recruit Chauncey Gardner, to make an impact in his freshman year. Gardner has made a smooth transition from cornerback to safety since arriving in Gainesville. The early enrollee practiced with the second-team throughout the spring, but has the potential to work up to a starting role with continued improvement at his new position. He is a hard-hitting, Keanu Neal-type safety that could be a huge factor in the Gators’ secondary as the season unfolds.
Under new Defensive Backs Coach, Torrian Gray, this group looks to improve upon their 20th overall pass defense rating from a year ago. Gray made the move to Florida from Virginia Tech, where he led some of the best defensive backfields in the nation. The Gators arguably have the top cornerback duo in college football and talent at every position in the secondary. If the starters can stay healthy, Florida is in good shape to possibly have the best passing defense in the country in 2016.
Coming up next, defensive line.