After head-turning freshman campaigns, it would appear the future is nothing but bright for UF defensive backs CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson.
However, as sophomores, they are prepared to be tested even further this season.
Florida intends to place more responsibility on the shoulders of the defensive backs in coordinator Todd Grantham’s system, with Henderson and Wilson poised to receive much of the workload as the likely starters come Sept. 1 against Charleston Southern.
“We play a lot of man coverage, but we’ve got a lot of schemes we’re playing. It’s very important,” Wilson said. “We have big roles on this defense. We’re going to handle that how we should.”
Florida isn’t boosting the responsibility of the promising underclassmen-laden secondary for no reason. UF has placed an increased emphasis on forcing and recovering turnovers in 2018, after the Gators tied for No. 81 in the country last season with 17 turnovers recovered. Henderson accounted for four interceptions last season, returning two for touchdowns, while Wilson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second-best freshman on defense in the SEC as he recorded a team-high 10 pass-breakups.
For a defense that found itself exhausted and stuck on the field at times due to the ineptitude of the offense, Wilson said Florida has emphasized in preseason camp the importance of forcing more turnovers, in turn giving the defense a breather.
“(Turnovers are) just really important on defense, other than playing as hard as you can, and I think that’s the most important thing on defense is you want to get the offense back out there, and you want to have their offense on the field as little as possible,” Wilson said. “We’re working on punching the ball out and just, when you play, you see the ball, go get the ball.”
With Duke Dawson and Marcell Harris having graduated from UF, the secondary is full of fresh faces and relatively inexperienced outside of Wilson, Henderson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, meaning the sophomores are expected to fill leadership roles in Florida’s locker room and on the field.
“We have to step up as leaders, me and Marco. We play a big role in this defense,” Henderson said. “I think all of our guys took a big jump.”
Wilson concurred that the entire unit has stepped up to fill the lack of depth in the secondary, especially when it comes to his personal development.
“I’m a lot smarter. Also, I’m a lot bigger from last year. I’m more excited about the smarter part and the defense is also different,” Wilson said. “It’s not a simple defense where I’m only doing one or two different things the whole game. It gives me more opportunities to make plays.”