The upside: The national perception is there will be a natural drop-off at DBU with the departure of high NFL draft picks Tez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye. But the expectation among the players and the coaches is for this secondary to play at the customary high level at Florida.
There is proven talent. There just isn’t a lot of it beyond the starters.
23-Chauncey Gardner Jr.
When you look at this secondary, you start with the two players who elected to return for their senior season — Duke Dawson and safety Marcell Harris. Dawson is making the move back to cornerback, his more natural position, after playing safety and nickel the past two seasons. While Tabor and Wilson were in the spotlight last season, Dawson quietly emerged as perhaps the Gators’ best cover man in the secondary coming down the stretch, making numerous crucial break-ups.
Harris, like Dawson, had a strong second half last season and followed up with an excellent spring that saw him improve his overall game, especially his open-field tackling ability. Harris and Dawson have become the leaders of an overall young group.
The next big star in the UF secondary figures to be cornerback/nickel/safety Chauncey Gardner Jr., who may have been the Gators’ best defensive back after he became a starter in the final three games. He had an interception against FSU, recorded nine tackles against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, then closed with his two-interception, MVP performance in the Outback Bowl that included a pick-six.
Gardner is the most versatile player in the secondary. He can play corner, both safety positions and nickel. He went back and forth between the different positions in the spring, but figures to take over one of the corner spots vacated by Tabor and Wilson.
With Gardner moving to the edge, it opens the way for veteran Nick Washington to take over as the starter at safety. The fifth-year senior has played a lot of football for the Gators (at safety and on special teams) and really started coming into his own last season, starting six games before he suffered a season-ending injury in the win at LSU.
The downside: The Gators feel great about their starters, but a lack of proven depth behind the front-line guys is a significant issue heading into preseason camp.
Cornerbacks Joseph Putu and Chris Williamson and safety Jeawon Taylor saw only limited playing time as back-ups last season and are largely untested. Putu had a good spring and emerged as the No. 3 corner, but until he produces in a game, he is somewhat of an unknown.
The Gators will be counting on depth from three freshmen who redshirted last season — safety Quincy Lenton and cornerbacks McArthur Burnett and C.J. McWilliam.
UF put together one of the nation’s strongest defensive recruiting classes, signing six highly rated prospects. That’s good for the future, but it might be too much to ask to get significant help from more than one or two of the freshmen.
Young player to watch: Cornerback C.J. McWilliams made a strong early impression in camp last August and appeared headed for possible playing time as a true freshman. But the under-sized McWilliams suffered a torn ACL in practice and was sidelined for the season. During his time off and rehab, McWilliams gained about 20 pounds of muscle and now looks like an SEC cornerback. Although he was held out of contact drills in the spring, he was able to show enough that the coaches feel he will see significant playing time this season because of his cover skills and natural instincts.
Don’t be surprised if: The secondary continues to play up to UF’s high standards despite the dynamic losses of Tabor, Wilson and Maye. Dawson, Washington and Gardner are all proven playmakers who seem ready to step into the spotlight and carry the DBU banner. And don’t be surprised if the next great Gator DB starts to emerge from a talented freshman class that will have a chance to make an impact given the overall lack of depth in the secondary.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.
Ranking the SEC secondaries
7. South Carolina
10. Texas A&M
12. Ole Miss
13. Mississippi State