TALLAHASSEE — Without their top defensive back, and with an early 1-1 record, the Gators saw their hopes of making a run in 2018 slipping away.
Until freshman Trey Dean III stepped on the field, that is.
Dean replaced injured sophomore defensive back Marco Wilson in the team’s 27-16 loss to Kentucky earlier this season and never looked back, and Saturday revealed just how necessary Dean’s early experience was when it came to Florida’s success in Dan Mullen’s first season at the helm.
Dean had one of Florida’s two interceptions in the team’s 41-14 victory at Florida State, and his efforts in the secondary helped the Gators hold quarterback Deondre Francois to just 154 passing yards and a 48.3 percent completion percentage.
Considering the depleted depth at secondary this season, Dean’s early emergence was a sight for sore eyes — but it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“The progress for him has been outstanding. From the beginning, having to step in for Marco, and just having to go out there and step into a big role. Most freshmen don’t get that call,” junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “(But) at Florida, most freshmen get that call. Not just because of injuries, just because that provides experience.”
It was just a year ago that Wilson and fellow cornerback CJ Henderson were freshmen beyond their years at Florida — meaning the blueprint was fresh for Dean to follow.
But Saturday, Dean bore resemblance to Gardner-Johnson.
With the Gators clutching a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Francois looked deep to pass, but didn’t see the double coverage. Dean played the ball well in the air and hauled in his first interception before dashing 44 yards in the other direction.
It was the cherry on top of a standout season for Florida’s heavily involved freshman, and Gardner-Johnson couldn’t help but feel a little déjà vu.
“This game (as a freshman in 2016) was my first career pick. It’s just another step for him. He can’t dwell on it,” Gardner-Johnson said of Dean. “He played well. Young guy that’s going to be great in the future. Continue to look for his number.”
With Wilson and Henderson set to return next season for what could be a final ride for UF’s dynamic defensive back tandem, Dean’s emergence should spur the secondary for years to come. Although Dean was thrust into the metaphorical fire early, there was no expectation for the former four-star prospect to become the next Wilson or the next Henderson — he simply needed to be Trey Dean III.
“There’s a standard we have to live by, and you don’t have to be the best, but you have to do your best every day. And if you do that, then you’re going to have success,” Mullen said. “And I think as the year went on, our guys, they’re really buying in to that.”