UF secondary breakdown: Gators have talent to live up to DBU nickname

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Florida cornerback CJ Henderson breaks up a pass intended for the FSU receiver during last year's game while safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (23) comes in to assist. Both defenders are expected to step up this season. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

This is the second in a series previewing the 2018 Florida football team.

A preview of the Florida defensive backfield entering head coach Dan Mullen’s first season:

The upside

The Gators have some young and proven players at the corner spots that should help the secondary live up to its DBU (Defensive Back University) reputation.

After starting as true freshmen last season, and more than holding their own, cornerbacks Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are expecting to make the next step toward elite status in their sophomore season.

Wilson became only the fourth true freshman in school history to start the opener at cornerback in 2017. And he never really played like a freshman. Poised and confident, he started all 11 games and led the Gators in pass breakups with 10.

He’s gained almost 15 pounds of muscle since last season, which should make him even tougher to beat off the line in man coverage.

While Wilson almost quietly went about his business last season, Henderson made quite a splash, especially early in the season. He returned interceptions for scores against Michigan and Tennessee. He followed that up with steady play over the remainder of the year, starting five games and finishing with four interceptions.

The Gators also have a proven playmaker at the nickel/star position in junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is UF’s most experienced defensive back and leader in the back end.

Gardner-Johnson has started 14 games over the past two seasons, including all 11 in 2017, and has intercepted five passes. He’ll have a chance to make a lot of plays in a new defense that features a lot of blitzing and stunting, and where he will have multiple roles.

DBU’s next standout defensive back could be junior Jeawon Taylor, who started five of the last six games at safety last season and was one of UF’s best defensive players on the field over that span. He emerged as one of the defensive leaders in the spring.

At the other safety spot, promising sophomore Brad Stewart appears ready to take on the starting role after playing in all 11 games last season and recording an interception.

The downside

The Gators have what amounts to almost zero proven depth at corner behind Wilson and Henderson.

Heading into preseason camp, the backups are true sophomore Brian Edwards and true freshman Trey Dean, an early enrollee.

Edwards played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams, and showed some promise when he did play on defense. But is he ready to step in if one of the starters goes out?

The same goes for Dean, who was impressive at times in the spring, but, as expected, struggled some with consistency.

Another big concern is the health of Taylor at safety. He underwent surgery after injuring his shoulder in the UAB game and had to sit out contact drills in the spring. He’s been cleared for the start of camp. Now, it’s a question of how well his shoulder holds up.

Young player to watch

If he doesn’t end up at linebacker, true freshman Amari Burney could turn out to be quite a playmaker at safety. He showed signs of being just that in the spring. He’s listed as an athlete on the preseason roster. Wherever he ends up, safety or linebacker, he’ll have a chance to make an impact with his size/speed/toughness skill set.

Don’t be surprised if. …

One of the defensive backs, most likely Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, is at or near the top in the team lead for sacks at the end of the season. In coordinator Todd Grantham’s aggressive, attacking defense, the safeties (and other DBs) will often crowd the line of scrimmage and come on blitzes. So, the defensive backs are going to be in opposing backfields quite often this season, with a chance to make plays

Quotable

“I really like the technique he brings to us. It’s just something I’m comfortable with and I like that style of play. He’s just a very smart coach and he’s going to give us tips to make sure we’re making plays every day. And he’s not somebody that just lets us get comfortable. I don’t like a coach to let someone get comfortable because when you get too comfortable, you start messing up. So he’s always on us making sure we’re doing what’s right.” — CB Marco Wilson on cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren

Projected depth chart

CB

3-Marco Wilson

21-Trey Dean

14-Justin Watkins

CB

5-CJ Henderson

6-Brian Edwards

14-Justin Watkins

Star (nickel)

23-Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

14-C.J. McWilliams

SS

29-Jeawon Taylor

31-Shawn Davis

30-Amari Burney

27-Quincy Lenton

S

2-Brad Stewart

13-Donovan Stiner

26-John Huggins

Ranking the SEC secondaries

Florida

LSU

Georgia

Alabama

Auburn

Texas A&M

Kentucky

Mississippi State

Vanderbilt

South Carolina

Tennessee

Ole Miss

Arkansas

Missouri

34 COMMENTS

  1. And I say and predict that Savage has been working hard with Burney this summer, and Burney comes back at the beginning of fall practices much bigger, faster, and stronger than he was even in the spring. He starts fall practice as a backup outside linebacker, not in the defensive backfield, and quickly beats out Johnson as the starting OLB and is named to the freshman all-SEC team at the end of the season.

  2. And finally, on a down note. Anyone else notice that Florida lost out on every recruit they were after that committed this week. Three of them, including the OG from Georgia and cousin of QB Jones on Florida’s roster. I looked at 247Sports recruiting ranking board yesterday and Florida is not in it for most of the top recruits in the nation that are not already committed (only one five-star from California that Florida really has no shot of getting and just a small group of four stars that do not have Florida that high on their list of schools and are not predicted to go to Florida). But Mullen remains in the hunt for a bunch of 3 stars not ranked in 247Sports top 300 recruits. It is depressing as a Florida fan when one goes through the list of still available top 300 recruits not even considering Florida, many of which are top players in the state of Florida who do not even have Florida under consideration. What is far more depressing is to read, one after another, how many recruits have Georgia at the top of their lists, including many of the top remaining recruits in the state of Florida that are not even considering Florida. I am very concerned, still, about the lack of success Mullen and his staff are having on the recruiting trail, and especially in and around the state of Florida. Something is amiss. I sure hope Mullen has a lot of late surprises up his sleeve or this could become one of the weakest recruiting classes in a long time for the Florida Gators and drop Florida even further behind the soaring Georgia program under Smart. Blast me if you desire, but look it up. Florida is seriously lagging other SEC programs in recruiting, including Mississippi State with their new coach from the East coach killing it on the recruiting trail. And FSU has, what, about 7 or 8 top defensive ends committed to their class and more considering FSU. And Florida can’t seem to get one on board. Just stating current reality, folks. Recruiting is the life blood of a top football program, and Florida is currently losing a lot of blood on the recruiting trail.

    • Tampa,
      You are looking at the recruiting situation backwards. We wont get the 5 stars until we win. We will have to squeak out a couple 10 to 11 win seasons with 3 and 4 star players first. To do that, we will have to have a coach that can get the most out of lesser players, win some close ones with conditioning and special teams, and lessen mistakes/to’s due to our smaller margin of error. Personally, I think we have a coach who can do exactly that. As far as the 5 stars, we were never in contention dor them, so why get upset over not getting any. I understand your frustration cause we used to get the big boy recruits, but we arent back there yet. Patience, my friend.

      • 100% agree with everything you just said, willgator, except for one minor quibble. Three and four star recruits are lessor players on paper only until all are coached and the first snap has happened. Then the degree of separation, if there is one, actually takes place.

        • True, Mr. 6.
          I shouldn’t have used the word “lessor”. I should have said lower ranked recruits. What I trying to tell tampa was we arent even on the 5 star recruits radar, and wont be until we win, so getting upset over not landing a 5* at this point is a little ahead of the game. It would be like saying we had a bad season next year if we didnt win the NC, it is an unrealistic goal, so not attaining it is not a negative mark on the program.

  3. TampaGator, I think most of Gator Nation finds 2019 recruiting to be dismal. The reality, as you know, is that Florida has a horrible offensive stat which other schools use to point out what we all know–Florida has been in the cellar. Mullen is going to have to radically change the offensive stats for UF to be a major player. Gator Nation doesn’t need the proof, but, obviously, recruits need to be shown otherwise. We may have to live with the Muschamp and McElwain era longer than we had hoped. At least Mullen knows offense and will get more from his players, regardless of stars.

    • DrG8r. Then explain how Taggert comes to FSU, after a bad season by Noles standards and a horrible offense last year and with Taggert not having torn it up at Oregon, and he is recruiting a top class already. I do not buy the argument you are making concerning Florida. The Florida coaches need to sell the program better and work harder to get better quality recruits to Florida, especially the top in-state recruits. Florida has a real need at linebacker and on the OL, and hardly any of the top recruits in Florida at those positions are even considering the Gators. And how about the Mississippi State coach coming into Starkville with no southeaster recruiting connections and is already tearing it up on the recruiting trail, and already putting a class together that is better than any class Mullen ever recruited to MSU. There is something sorely lacking and amiss in Mullen’s recruiting room, sad to say. I think basically firing the previous running backs coach (by making him the TE’s coach) who had all kinds of connections in the state of Florida and was actually doing a great job with the running backs, was a huge mistake for Mullen on the recruiting trail and maybe on the playing field as well. But things do seem to be picking up with the 2020 recruits. But Mullen cannot afford a bad recruiting year with the way Georgia and other SEC schools are recruiting top players. And FSU as well.

  4. Hey, Tampa! You’ve opened the scab on a big sore on our Gator hides, the downright ordinary and sub-Gator standard recruiting the past several years. It’s been painful and awfully frustrating waiting for Mullen and company to pick up almost any prominent commitment. There’s a good, insightful piece elsewhere via Saturday Down South that offers some valuable perspective.

    Meantime, the damage done over the last eight years, being on our fourth coach since the National Championship ten years ago, and coming off still another demoralizing season, should we be surprised. While almost all of us like Dan Mullen a lot, he didn’t possess the hit name that a couple of other candidates did.
    The staff he brought and to which he added didn’t have much connection to the state of Florida. He needs credibility that a strong winning season with an exciting offense would provide.

    Mullen and his staff may be persisting in the recruiting mindset that characterized their work at Mississippi State and getting similar results. It’s still plenty early, however, and Mullen proved he know how to close the deal. Let’s see what happens after Friday Night Lights.

    • Clyde. Why I mentioned that Mullen made a mistake in not keeping the running backs coach who was demoted to TEs coach and then later left for Penn State. That really hurt the momentum of Florida’s recruiting, I believe. And the guy was doing a great job coaching the running backs at Florida before he was demoted to TEs coach. And the RBs coach from MSU that Mullen brought with him has had very little impact on recruiting so far in Florida or elsewhere. But, as you stated, it just might take some time to get the ball rolling, along with a much better season this year. The 2020 recruiting already seems to be picking up some steam.

      • Clyde. I did go check out the Down South article, which is a very good one. Interesting that it points out what I recognized when I looked through the top recruits in Florida on 247Sports; that Florida is not making a lot of offers to kids in South Florida, or they are offering but not actively recruiting them. Few of the top recruits in South Florida are even considering Florida right now. Makes me wonder if the Florida administration (after last year’s issues with some of the players from South Florida) has directed the coaches to recruit other areas of the state and go more outside the state for recruits.

  5. TampaGator, Free Shoes University has not sucked on offense since 2010. No one can dis on the Noles offense year end and year out. I hate the Noles, but at least they had an excuse for last year. The Gators have had an abysmal offensive record thanks to the M&M coaches (everyone knows that), and Gator Nation has suffered through it. Dan left MSU in great shape and is the reason why Moorhead is being successful. No one left Mullen a great situation. Clearly, his past ties with certain player’s saved our recruiting in 2018. Instead of finding fault with our current staff, I believe we are reaping the results of past bad hires.

  6. I mean no disrespect to anyone; I bring no artillery. But I would submit that the above arguments, regardless of how much merit now, or not, are very similar to those made by Gator G and Tim. Both of which were, of course, accused of being trolls and presumably are no longer posting here in no small part according to the level of disrespect they received.

    Since the argument has taken on a considerably more civil back and forth as of late, I would ask them to reconsider, if they are at least still reading, and rejoin the discussion.

  7. First, as far as cb depth, I thought Chauncey gardner could play corner if needed, and we often have what proves to be talented players that don’t have a lot of experience before the year starts, but there is often a risk in a players second year of injury etc., so I understand the depth argument, but I still like our dbs.
    I think we may have to be realistic about recruiting. I’m not surprised to hear the new linebackers coach has started slowly, but the rest of the position coaches I am a little surprised about the apparent slow start, but times have changed. I don’t understand why anyone would want to go to Georgia, but the state of Florida is competitive and the other states have really spent a lot of money trying to upgrade their football programs while we seemed to de-emphasize football under Foley.
    We will know soon enough is Dan Mullen is going to do as well as Spurrier, who always seemed to lose the top recruits to Georgia but still was able to run up the score on them. I guess my point is that games are played on the field, not in the newspaper. I look forward to watching us play.

      • No CO, come back to earth! Since we’ve been talking numbers the last couple of days, I actually did some research and discovered what any Numerologist worth his salt already knows: The team with the most vowels in its name will always be the superior team, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Chasing rainbows won’t matter, Florida is hosed in that department and that’s that. All is still lost.

  8. From what I saw last year, I am not impressed with any of these guys–They are all way over rated– Opposing team’s better receivers mostly had their way with them all– Chauncey G. missed more tackles than he made– I have never seen a gator DB whiff on so many tackles–

    This has really not been “DBU” in the past 2-3 years… a real drop off in talent & no 5 star DBs signed in quite a while…

  9. Part of this has to do with Florida as a brand name. The harsh reality is UF football has become a 2007 Chevy when Georgia is now the Maserati. Most high school coaches look at the program as a used car with dents and rust. The program cannot come back in 3 years and deliver a better proven product. Sadly that is where we are.

    • Yes, good analogy, and true as far as looks go. But Maseratis, while beautiful on the outside, are also notoriously unreliable!

      I sustain that the program can indeed come back in three years and deliver both a proven product and a championship team. You’re on!

  10. One more thing, what I am looking for is the next danny wuerrfel, the next tim tebow, the next spurrier, the kind of guy that can just carry his teammates, at times functioning like a coach on the field, with a cool head but the courage to speak his mind at the right moment, the inclusiveness, the dog determination, a little edge, the humility with his teammates though, the guy that produces wins. that type of captain is worth 10 five star players. Did we get one or is one coming? You don’t know until the time of testing arrives.
    Today the French won the world cup again, the current coach, Deschamps, had also won it as a player/captain. His nickname was the “water carrier”, humble, but he always found a way to get the ball back to his team and start the attack from midfield. As a coach he was able to get his players to perform at a high level with a very young team. the value of intangibles is greatly underestimated by the newspaper, because the newspaper has to sell newspapers, and stats and the like sell better than water carriers.
    But if we find a good water carrier, I will be very pleased, more than if we get a statistical whatever.

  11. Listen guys. I’m a proud gator myself. What we have in Mullen will be fine. All this ” he’s so far behind” stuff is crazy. Firstly a ” commitment” is not a commit until he signs the letter of intention. So for all those 5 star players that are so called gone. They aren’t gone for good until December. I am willing to bet that once Mullen starts getting offense going and the Gators turn around a terrible season from a year ago. Commits will once again come. All these kids want a championship. They want the NFL so they will go where that can happen. Once we show we can score points again it will happen. And for any Mullen hater I watched what he did for MSU. MSU was nothing for a long time Mullen made MSU a program because he had time to do so and support. We need to support Mullen and give him time to make the gator nation great again as it was 10 years ago and before that.

  12. I believe the Gators got the right coach, at the right time, to right a ship sailing in the wrong direction. Sure he was left a team with only three 5 star players.. but if he can make our offense half as exciting to watch as he did last time he was here,, we gonna win quite a few games. With our defense , we should’nt have to put up a boat load of points. And our schedule is on our side as well. When we do win those games… and we will…then you watch all these high school recruits will want to be Gators again. And all these ones that had the chance to and didn’t will regret their choice they made… just watch & see ….go Gators 🐊

  13. I wanted Mullen after Urban. I thought he did a phenomenol job at MSU and had fantastic player development. I always wondered Wow, what could he do with UF players. His recruiting at MSU was average at best. He won a lot of games with supposedly less talented players from the star rating system. He did not however win any championships or get over the hump and consistently win over top 25 teams. Still, I love the hire and think he is a great coach and gets the most out of his players. But if the recruiting remains stagnant, which I pray it doesn’t and picks up when the season starts, then we may get similar results to that of MSU. Alabama has won a lot of games and championships the last ten years and didn’t do it by trotting out a bunch of 3 star players to do it. At this point, I share Tampa’s concern over the present state of our recruiting board. I think we will see a much improved team this year and will be pleasantly surprised how well they play because I think we still have a very talented team. They will benefit greatly from better coaching. However, in the long run, to get back to where THE FLORIDA GATORS belong, WINNING CHAMPIONSHIPS, the recruiting has to improve. After going 4-7 and losing to Ga Southern at home and having a “lame duck” coach, we still pulled in the 9th ranked recruiting class. I state this to those who use last year’s record to defend our present recruiting predicament. This is not negative or an indictment of our coaching staff. I’m just a lowly fan with some deep concerns about recruiting to date and pray my worries will be alleviated as signing day approaches. I for one, don’t believe the Gator brand is damaged. This IS the great University of Florida. Gator Nation is Broad and Powerful. My nephew took a trip to Alaska this summer and was shocked at the number of “GO GATORS” he got on his trip. Go Gators.