New-look secondary holds a key to Florida’s season

Duke Dawson
Florida defensive back Duke Dawson (7) celebrates after breaking up a pass intended for Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin ona fourth down during the second half of last year's game in Jacksonville.Florida defeated Georgia 24-10. [Matt Stamey/Correspondent]

It is a part of the Gator defensive tradition that has played so well it has its own acronym.
But with the swagger of DBU comes the pressure of being the last line of defense. That is especially true this year with a secondary so young it needs driver’s ed classes.
How about “DB-New?”
When Marcell Harris was lost for the year during the preseason, it took away a scoop of experience from the Florida secondary. Florida now has 21 starts by defensive backs on its entire roster.
Getting nervous?
Oh yeah, it also has a new defensive coordinator in Randy Shannon and a new secondary coach (Corey Bell) who was a high school coach four years ago.
You may need some Melatonin to sleep when you think about this young secondary going up against sophisticated passing games (like Michigan’s), strong-armed quarterbacks (Jacob Eason and Jake Bentley come to mind) and coaches who know how to get receivers open (that school out west).
But Jim McElwain has made it clear that Florida’s recruiting emphasis last year was on the secondary because the hits were coming.
And Florida was able to sell a class of defensive backs on opportunity not only to play right away, but to the next level.
“It’s a great path those guys left,” said senior Duke Dawson. “We have to follow in those footsteps.”
“Those guys” are the six Florida defensive backs from the last two seasons who are playing in the NFL right now. Other schools can argue about which one qualifies as “DBU” but that’s a pretty impressive stat.
Dawson and fellow senior Nick Washington will have the next shot at the pros and between them they have 18 of the 21 returning starts for Florida. Dawson, from nearby Cross City, will be looked on to provide leadership as well as consistent play.
He’s an old man compared to the other corners who will be counted on this year.
“I am, but I don’t feel like I’m a veteran,” Dawson said. “I feel like I’m young. Time has just flown by.
“I have some things to work on. I have to be more vocal, I’m a quiet guy, always been kind of laid back.”
But when you have a half-dozen freshmen and you are counting on some of them to emerge, they need to be led.
“I hope all of them emerge,” Shannon said. “If some of them emerge, we’ll be fine.”
With Dawson and Washington and the late-season explosion of Chauncey Gardner, it’s not like Florida is starting from scratch in the back end.
Still, it’s going to be how well the kids play, how easily they can forget mistakes while still remembering what caused them, how well they can take the physicality of tackling in the SEC, how smoothly they can shade their eyes from the bright lights, all of these things will go a long way to deciding what kind of defense this is.
“We’re kind of excited about it because it’s been — from listening to those guys talk this summer — is that everybody is helping everybody,” Shannon said. “Nobody is having an ego.
“Nobody is, like, ‘A young guy coming in may want to take somebody’s position,’ but he’s listening, and the older guys are teaching them what they need to do to take their position because it’s — if someone gets hurt, who will be the next guy up. So don’t take it upon yourself that this guy is taking my position. This guy is competing, and if I don’t step up my game, then he deserves to take my job.”
For all of the chatter about the quarterback position and linebacker depth, the fortunes of this season may simply come down to whether Florida can cover anybody.
Me vs. you. Welcome to the island. I’ll try to be more than your tour guide.
“We just have to get those (freshmen) to go play and not overthink things,” Gardner said.
No pressure, guys.
“They’ll get tested,” said McElwain. “I’ll say go ahead and test them, because I think they’re going to be all right.”
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