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 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 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
“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
Ranking the SEC secondaries