Florida senior cornerback Duke Dawson was asked how he would evaluate the performance of the secondary in its season opener against Michigan.
Dawson and freshman cornerback CJ Henderson returned interceptions for touchdowns. But the Gators also had a miscommunication in coverage that led to freshman safety Shawn Davis being caught out of position during Michigan wide receiver Tarik Black’s 46-yard touchdown catch.
“I would grade ourselves as a C right now,” Dawson said. “A lot of missed stops on the field … That’s something that we really harp on heavy every week, every day, we go into practice not just ourselves but our coaches, as well, about everyone communicating and buying into what the game plan is.”
Florida’s young secondary will be tested again Saturday against Tennessee. Last season, the Gators allowed four second-half touchdown passes and 319 yards passing during Tennessee’s 38-28 comeback win. Two were on pass plays of 40 yards or more — a 42-yard TD pass from Josh Dobbs to receiver Josh Malone and a 67-yard TD pass from Dobbs to receiver Juaun Jennings.
Dobbs and Malone have departed for the NFL, while Jennings is out indefinitely after suffering an injury during Tennessee’s season opener against Georgia Tech. But the Vols still have speed at the receiver position. Sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway has emerged as a big-play threat, with five catches for 152 yards and three TDs.
“They will test that young secondary and that young secondary is going to be ready to go,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “They’ll definitely do that. We’ve got to protect against, especially, play-action and double moves and not allow them to get by us on some of that. So that discipline in which our guys play back there, and ultimately, accepting the challenge to win your one-on-one.”
Freshman cornerback Marco Wilson, the younger brother of former UF cornerback Quincy Wilson, held up well in his first career start against Michigan, while sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner had six tackles, including two tackles for loss.
“It’s another receiving corps to us,” Gardner said. “They throw the ball up, it’s a 50-50 ball. At the end of the day, it’s just go out, best man win.”
Dawson said some of UF’s younger players in the secondary need to do a better job anticipating throws coming in their direction.
“The thing we’re trying to get in our mind, every day is acting like the ball is coming to you, every snap,” Dawson said. “Just getting the young guys to understand that.”
Dawson will likely match up with Callaway in man coverage to start the game, but said he’s been studying all of Tennessee’s receivers.
“I just don’t look at one receiver,” Dawson said, “I mean I try to get looks at different receivers, know how to guard them. Every receiver has got different release and come out of their breaks different so we have to be looking at everyone else, not just one guy.”
Who: No. 23 Tennessee (2-0) vs. No. 24 Florida (0-1)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Finishing plays will be important for the Gators as well. Florida has missed 78 tackles in its last two meetings with the Vols, a number brought up often during defensive film sessions.
“The past two years we had guys that were first rounders that were missing tackles too,” Gardner said. “Just knowing that guys that went first round were missing tackles, you can’t … you just do what you see, follow them, wrap up and just bring them to the ground.”
UF’s front seven could help the secondary by putting consistent pressure on Tennessee starting quarterback Quinten Dormady. The Gators recorded five sacks in the Michigan loss.
“Our defensive line, we’re basically the elderly group on our defense,” Florida junior defensive lineman Khairi Clark said. “So I feel like by us doing our jobs and getting back there to the quarterback, we can definitely help the secondary out.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.