In the defensive meeting room under the stadium, where a few scooters are parked to avoid parking tickets and workouts are scribbled on a whiteboard, Florida’s two young cornerbacks talk in hushed tones of quiet confidence.
It’s part weariness from the latest summer workout and part personality. They are still getting to know this process of talking to the media after being censored like all freshman were last year.
And they went through a baptism they never expected last season, a 4-7 debacle that saw the coaches who recruited them sent packing and ridicule piled upon a once-proud program.
It scarred them, mentally and physically, a lost season for two guys trying not to get lost as true freshman.
Marco Wilson, a legacy with star power written all over him.
CJ Henderson, pushed into a position he had never played before.
“I didn’t know how to handle that last year,” said Wilson, the younger brother of former Gator star Quincy Wilson. “That was bad, but it was good to see when things are going bad, people are still watching and you have to continue to play.
“It has me motivated this year because it was disrespectful. That’s not what Florida is.”
What Florida is now is something completely different. New attitude, new coaches, new optimism.
Same young cornerbacks.
The two rising sophomores have a season full of experience at a different level. As a result, they are expected to be one of the strengths of a defense that slipped just a bit in 2017.
That quiet confidence is a product of a season on the brink.
“The first time playing corner, it was an adjustment,” said Henderson, who played running back throughout high school. “I really tried to learn off experience because every corner is different. In high school, you just play off athleticism. Here, it’s technique and I’m still working on it.”
Henderson put up the flashiest numbers in 2017 even though he started only five games of the 11 Florida played. He had four interceptions, returning two of them for scores in consecutive games (Michigan and Tennessee), the first true freshman to do that.
And yet, he feels like last year was a big learning curve and we haven’t seen anything.
“I need continued consistency,” he said. “I need to get my hands on more balls. I have to understand offenses better.”
One would think that as he gets more comfortable with a position that is no longer brand new but still has some shine on it, that he will only get better. And last year, he was second-team All-SEC.
Now you can take that honor for what it’s worth. So often, voters just look at the leaders in interceptions to fill out their ballots and Henderson qualified in that regard. Seriously, if you were such a lockdown corner that no quarterback even looked your way, you’d have no shot at being all-conference. But that’s a rant for another day.
Without studying tape, do any of us really know if Henderson played better than Wilson? Or vice-versa? Wilson led the Florida team with 10 pass break-ups and started all 11 games. But he had zero picks.
“You can be a lockdown corner, but if you don’t get interceptions people don’t know what you’re doing,” Wilson said. “I’m really excited to go after my goal list.”
You can guess what one of the things is that is on that list.
Surpass Henderson in the video game “Fortnite?”
Yeah, probably. The two roommates share a love for the game and a bond built from being thrown into the fire at a place that considers itself the real “DBU.” Arguments can be made for several, but think about this — Florida has sent seven defensive backs into the NFL in the last three years despite being on its fifth DB coach in five years.
“We’re going to keep putting guys out there,” Wilson said.
The latest of these coaches to work with talented defensive backs is Charlton Warren, who brings discipline to a position that feeds off structure.
This is what Warren said this spring: “When you have discipline and accountability, you don’t blow coverages. When you have discipline and accountability, you communicate effectively with your teammate, your squadmate, your brother next to you. You make sure everybody is on the same page.”
OK, so two guys who have developed a rich bond forged by the fires of desperation now have a guy who will be holding them accountable.
What’s not to like?
“We’re on the same path,” Wilson said, “trying to get to the same place.”
Let me guess. Does it have three initials?
“I’m ready to see what the future holds,” Henderson said. “We have a great future.”
Especially with the short past that forged them now in the rear-view.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.