Forward focus: UF's secondary
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 1:58 p.m.
The Florida Gators experienced a considerable bump in Will Muschamp's second season, going from 7-6 in 2011 to 11-2 in 2012 with a berth in a BCS bowl game.
2013 possible depth chart
5-Marcus Roberson OR
-- Vernon Hargreaves III
-- Nick Washington
-- Marcell Harris
-- Keanu Neal
So, what happens in Year 3?
With so many players departing through a combination of graduation, transfers and leaving early for the NFL, UF is a team in transition as it moves forward into 2013.
Over the past few weeks, The Sun has broken down the Gators by position to give readers an idea of what to expect this UF team to look like in the fall.
Half the secondary — both starting safeties — are gone. Josh Evans was a senior last season, and Matt Elam made the decision to forego his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, where he possibly could go late in the first round or early in the second. Elam started every game over the past two seasons (26) and was the leader and leading playmaker in the secondary in 2012.
He led the Gators in interceptions with four last season and also recorded two sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He had some game-changing plays last season. Evans started all but two games the past two seasons. He led the team in tackles in 2012 with 83 and also intercepted two passes.
While the starting safeties are gone, all the cornerbacks return from last season — Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson, Cody Riggs, Brian Poole and Jeremy Brown. The Gators are so deep and experienced at the corner positions that Purifoy is going to see some practice time this spring at wide receiver and Watkins, a starting corner last season, is going to get a look at safety as the coaches try to get the four (and five and six) best players on the field in the secondary. Purifoy, who had three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks on special teams last season, appears to be the leading candidate to replace Elam as the playmaker in the secondary. He has excellent speed and seems to have a knack for being around the ball. Watkins started 11 games at cornerback last season and had three interceptions. Roberson started four games last season after starting 10 as a true freshman in 2011. Riggs started 10 games in 2011, but fractured his foot in the second game last season and received a medical redshirt. Poole played in 12 games as a true freshman last season and also can play safety. The backup safeties from last year return — Valdez Showers and Jabari Gorman.
Marcus Maye, a redshirt freshman, is considered a leading candidate to be one of the starters at safety. Muschamp and several defensive players, including Elam, spoke last season about the potential Maye was showing with some of the things he did last year in preseason camp and on the scout team during the season. Like Elam, he has the size and physicality to play close to the line of scrimmage and have an impact on run defense and on blitzes in passing situations. Another redshirt freshman, Rhaheim Ledbetter, is a big-time hitter who has a chance to be a major contributor on special teams. UF's incoming freshmen also could have a significant impact in the secondary. The coaches feel Vernon Hargreaves III is talented enough and mature enough to compete for playing time at cornerback. Maybe he's the reason the coaches are letting Watkins and Purifoy see time at other positions this spring. Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal also will get an early look at the safety positions, where there is very little depth and experience. True freshman Nick Washington can play cornerback and safety.
The Gators are loaded with proven cornerbacks, but have some questions at safety, where both starters must be replaced. With some players who can play both corner and safety, the Gators have some versatility, and the coaches will use the spring to start identifying the best combinations in the secondary. Overall, there is no shortage of talent.
STRONGER OR WEAKER IN 2013?
It's going to be hard to replace the production and leadership of Elam and Evans, but the Gators have great experience and depth at the cornerback positions, which might allow Watkins, a starter at corner in 2012, to see extensive playing time at safety. Even without last year's starting safeties, the secondary has a chance to be just as good or better in 2013 because of all the proven talent, and the addition of some promising young players, most notably, Maye and Hargreaves III.