The two biggest areas of concern that the Florida football team has in 2019 are the offensive line and safeties. After the Orange and Blue game, the safeties seem to have shot ahead to the top of the list for some folks.
I think a lot of that is because of the fact that the defense was only allowed to play four coverages and almost never blitzed. Those constraints naturally benefit the offense and hamper the defense. Of course the offensive unit in question would look better while the one on defense would look worse.
I want to take this edition of the newsletter to go deeper on the safeties, because I think it’s worth a close look at what the Gators have there this year.
Last year, the safeties that could be trusted basically was the quartet of Donovan Stiner, Brad Stewart, Jeawon Taylor, and Shawn Davis. “Trusted” might be too strong a term in some cases, but those were the clear top four.
Even so, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Taylor spent a lot of the early season getting roasted before improving over the course of the season. Stewart whiffed on a fair number ball carriers in run support in the first half of the year. Davis missed the first four games to injury. The unit was also down a guy with Quincy Lenton going out for the season with an injury in fall camp.
This year, it appears those same four are the top four. Lenton, who’s missed a ton of time to various maladies in his career, remains well behind them.
It is true that the safeties didn’t make many big plays in the spring game. It also was very evident that they were told not to try too hard or especially to try to catch someone from behind. Davis on several occasions visibly pulled up rather than try to make a risky play in coverage or tackling. When the No. 1 goal of the game is to make sure no one gets hurt, that’s going to happen. It’s not Davis’s fault, and I’m sure he wasn’t scolded about any of those instances.
With that said, I think it’s worth separating what is and isn’t worrying about the safeties’ performances.
Take a deep middle route by Kadarius Toney that ended the first quarter. That Toney and Feleipe Franks knew exactly how to beat a coverage they 100% knew was coming is fine. It’d be worrying for the offense if they didn’t.
The poor tackling evinced by Stewart and Lenton is not fine. While Toney has gotten stronger and began being more assertive in the open field late last year, Stewart took an iffy angle and just missed Toney while Lenton went for the strip instead of the tackle and allowed the receiver plenty of extra yardage.
That at least is a fairly unambiguous example. Less clear is Van Jefferson’s touchdown that capped off that drive.
Jefferson lines up close to the formation’s right side. He goes right behind Stewart on a post for an easy pitch and catch. Stewart takes a step forward because of play action to Dameon Pierce, so it’s tempting to chalk this one up to Stewart biting on the fake.
However, had Franks handed it off, the defensive assignments worked in such a way that Stewart would’ve needed to make that stop because everyone else was going in places that Pierce was not. Plus, early enrollee Chris Steele was the cornerback in coverage on that side, and he goes wider than he needs to in order to take away the corner route to the offense’s right side. Jefferson turns his shoulders slightly to the right before cutting inside to the left, leaving Steele a long way from where the catch is made.
Is it possible that Stewart was more sensitive to the run because he thought Steele had him covered behind? Maybe. I don’t know the defensive calls well enough to say. I do know that the coverage on the other side was one-on-one with Lenton and walk on corner Patrick Moorer covering their receivers with no help.
If Stewart was supposed to worry about both run and pass with one-on-one coverage provided by the corner on his side, then that one easily could’ve been on Steele rather than Stewart. A savvy vet in Jefferson beating an early enrollee freshman in Steele wouldn’t be a shocking development. Plus if the tight end on the right side had gone out for a pattern instead of solely blocking, then Stewart would’ve needed to cover him with Steele very obviously being the guy for taking Jefferson alone.
So while there are things to worry about with the safeties, they won’t be as bad as they looked in the spring game. And, if they need reinforcements, there are some options.
As Nick and Andrew discussed on last week’s GC podcast, it’s possible that one of the guys playing star right now could go back to safety if need be. Trey Dean is the starting star at the moment, but he was a safety prospect in high school and could slide back there to let John Huggins have a go at Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s old position. Huggins has looked impressive there, and he had a pick-six on Kyle Trask in the Orange and Blue game while playing it.
The other option would be to leave Dean where he is and put Huggins back at safety, where he played last season. Either way, the idea hinges on the fact that Huggins might have played his way into being one of the top five defensive backs this spring, and there’s no reason not to play your top five as much as possible. Whether that puts Dean at star and Huggins at safety or vice versa, there are things for Todd Grantham and safeties coach Ron English to consider this summer.
Florida’s defense is reasonably well set everywhere else, so safety will continue to be the place of highest concern come fall on that side of the ball. While the top two lines of depth chart there don’t look any different than they did a year ago, they may not need to, and if they do, Huggins or Dean could solve the problem.