Florida position breakdown: Secondary a unit of strength

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Florida defensive back CJ Henderson knocks a pass away from LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson during last year's game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Brad McClenny/ The Gainesville Sun]

We break down the 2019 Florida football team by position group. This week a look at the secondary.

The upside

In CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, the Gators have one of the best starting cornerback combinations in college football.

Wilson was a preseason All-SEC pick heading into last season before seeing his year end with a torn ACL early in the second game of the season. Henderson is a consensus preseason All-SEC selection heading into the 2019 season.

Both are potential elite corners.

In the two years they’ve been at UF, they’ve both shown excellent speed, cover skills and instincts for playing one of the toughest positions in football. The two have combined to start 30 games already, and, of course, that number would be higher had Wilson not missed basically all of last season.

Wilson and Henderson are the leaders in an experienced and proven secondary that has seen eight players — Henderson, Wilson, Donovan Stiner, Jeawon Taylor, Trey Dean III, Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis and C.J. McWilliams — combine for 61 starts.

Dean, who started nine games at cornerback as a true freshman last season, is making the move to the star position, where he will be closer to the line of scrimmage and will have a chance to emerge as a playmaker.

The Gators are a solid two-deep at both safety positions with Stewart, Stiner, Taylor and Davis. Quincy Lenton also returns after missing last season with a torn Achilles injury and is expected to contribute.

The downside

Lack of depth at cornerback is a huge concern. Behind Wilson and Henderson, there’s little proven playing experience. That means it’s imperative that the two starters stay healthy and on the field throughout the season.

The potential problem with that is Wilson has had ACL surgery on both knees over a three-year period, so there are some concerns about his durability. He said earlier this summer that the knee he injured early in the Kentucky game last September is 100% and he’s good to go for the start of preseason camp. But there probably will be some anxious moments — for him and the coaching staff — when he first tests it in full-contact drills.

Behind Wilson and Henderson, there are only five other scholarship cornerbacks on the roster, and three of them are true freshmen — Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough.

Overall, this is potentially one of the best secondaries in college football. But if injuries hit at cornerback, it’s going to be tough for the Gators to live up to their DBU standard.

Young guy to watch

Even before the departure of cornerbacks Chris Steele and Brian Edwards, the feeling was that talented four-star true freshman Kaiir Elam would work his way into the playing rotation at cornerback at some point in the season.

Now, with the lack of proven depth at the corner spots, getting Elam ready to contribute at the start of the season becomes a preseason camp priority. He certainly appears to have the size (6-foot-1, 187 pounds), athletic ability and resume to be a potential contributor by the Aug. 24 opener against Miami.

The nephew of former UF All-SEC safety Matt Elam, Elam was a standout at cornerback and wide receiver at West Palm Beach. In his senior year, he had nine interceptions, 71 tackles and three sacks.

Chances are good he’ll be on the field, and on defense (not just special teams), at some point against the Hurricanes.

Don’t be surprised if …

True sophomore Trey Dean III emerges as an All-SEC type player. He’s going to have the opportunity after making the move from cornerback to the star position, where his dual ability as a cover guy and run stopper gives him a chance to be the same kind of playmaker Chauncey Gardner-Johnson became last season in his first year at the position. Dean more than held his own in 2018 after being pressed into a starting role at corner due to the injury to Marco Wilson in the second game of the season. With that experience, coupled with his athletic ability, he could be another dynamic player in a talented secondary.

Quotable

“It’s super important (that me and CJ stay healthy) just because of the depth. And also because we’re leaders out there on the field. Without us, there’s definitely something missing. We need to stay on that field and stay healthy and be able to help our team win a championship.” — cornerback Marco Wilson

Probable depth chart

Star

21-Trey Dean III

26-John Huggins

12-C.J. McWilliams

CB

1-CJ Henderson

12-C.J. McWilliams

23-Jaydon Hill

CB

3-Marco Wilson

5-Kaiir Elam

25-Chester Kimbrough

S

13-Donovan Stiner OR

31-Shawn Davis

27-Quincy Lenton

S

2-Brad Stewart Jr. OR

29-Jeawon Taylor

80-Trent Whittemore

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out last week’s series opener on the offensive backfield at Gatorsports.com.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I feel good about this group. The only concern to me with the young guys is whether they will know the schemes. We had a lot of busted coverages last year, but there are enough veterans out there that we will have good leadership on the field making sure everyone gets lined up right and executes their assignments. Our depth issues at corner were much worse last year, and Grantham figured it out.

  2. ”Wilson was a preseason All-SEC pick heading into last season before seeing his year end with a torn ACL early in the second game of the season.” I can still see his injury in my head. Wilson would even admit if asked (I’d bet) that he took that play too lacks. He kinda’ pushed the dude half-heartedly and ended up in a weird position, tweaking his knee. ‘”Break down” every play, ready to hit or to get hit and on EVERY play. Just saying, and oh, GO GATORS! JUST WIN BABY!
    ”Healthy, whole, and blessed!” All year, too!

  3. Outstanding synopsis and analysis. We should have a good pass rush to make the secondary look even better. Once the Miami game is here we will see what we have to work with. CDM will have these GATORS ready to put a black eye on that Hurricane…LOL. GO GATORS!!!