UF secondary in forefront of success
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 5:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 5:45 p.m.
Florida's secondary last season was best known for what it didn't do.
Didn't make enough plays. Didn't intercept enough passes. Didn't come up with critical fourth-down and fourth-quarter stops. Didn't play with confidence.
It's been a different story this season for the back end of Florida's defense.
A more experienced, more confident — and deeper — secondary has evolved into a playmaking team strength.
Two numbers jump off the stat sheet: 15 and 38. The Gators have intercepted 15 passes (after picking off only six all of last season) and broken up 38 passes, doubling their opponents' total (19).
“No. 1, I think, is having a lot of the guys back has made a big difference,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Wednesday. “These guys have had the opportunity to play together and communicate together.
“A year and experience in the system has to be a big factor. I'm certainly pleased with their effort and the way they've played.”
Last year's secondary was young and filled with rookie starters, including two true freshmen — cornerback Marcus Roberson and safety De'Ante Saunders. The other players — cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans — were first-time starters.
That secondary, while fast and talented, did not have playing experience in the defense and with each other — and it showed too often.
The Gators intercepted only six passes in 13 games and gave up a ton of plays.
With experience, those same players have come together to form one of the top secondaries in the SEC and nation.
The Gators lead the SEC in pass defense efficiency (87.5 percent), giving up only four touchdown passes and allowing opponents to complete less than 50 percent (49.2) of their passes.
In their most recent game-saving performance, the Gators intercepted four passes against Missouri, the final coming in the end zone with only five seconds remaining in the game.
“Last year you go into the season and I believe the first ballgame Pop and Marcus both started as true freshmen,” Muschamp said. “Jaylen and Cody (Riggs) had not played a lot of snaps. Matt, was his first time as a full-time starter. Josh Evans, his first time as a full-time starter.
“So, a lot of moving parts as far as experience and what not. I'm very pleased with how they've progressed. We certainly have improved ourselves on the perimeter and the way we play and the style we play with.
“We put a lot of pressure on our corners. It's very easy to see that as far as what we do and how we do things.”
Watkins said experience in the defense and familiarity with each other have made the guys in the secondary comfortable — and comfort back there usually leads to a high level of play, and that's what has happened.
“Just having four guys who played together last year. Four or five or even six guys who played together,” Watkins said. “We're all on the same page, and we often just play fast and react instead of thinking. That plays a big part in balls coming our way, and we're making plays on balls.
“We haven't really dropped that many interceptions. We know how valuable they are to the team now. A lot of our turnovers have turned into touchdowns, and it's easier on the offense.”
Quinn and the defensive staff put an emphasis on creating turnovers heading into last season, but they rarely came for the Gators. The result was a disappointing turnover margin of minus-eight.
This season, led by the 15 interceptions, the Gators boast a turnover margin of plus-11.
“Sometimes you get what you emphasize and we're continuing to emphasize that,” Quinn said. “We're getting some results.”
Muschamp said one of the strengths of the secondary is its depth. Three corners (Roberson, Watkins and Purifoy) have been competing weekly for the two corner positions, while three safeties (Elam, Evans and Saunders) have shared playing time at the two safety spots.
“Competition is my best motivator, and I've got three corners we can win with in the SEC,” Muschamp said. “All those guys go out every day and they have to perform at a high level in order to start and play the number of snaps they all want to play.
“We've got good competition at safety, and we've got some young, good ones coming. Very pleased with where we are.”
They're way ahead of where they were a year ago, Watkins said.
“I would say a lot of guys didn't know what they were doing,” said Watkins, who is tied with Elam for the team lead in interceptions with three. “A lot of guys were (freelancing) trying to make plays.
“There's nothing wrong with trying to make a play, but sometimes when you call a scheme you just have to do your job. We've been doing that this season, and it's working out.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.