In a Florida spring game that was basically rigged so the offense would make all kinds of plays and put up all kinds of points, it was hard for the defensive players to stand out.
But defensive back John Huggins found a way. He, in fact, produced the biggest play of the game — an 80-yard interception return of a Kyle Trask pass for a touchdown early in the game.
It was big for Huggins, who is making a run at serious playing time at the star position vacated by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. And, it was appropriate, because it culminated an excellent spring for the true sophomore from Daytona Beach Mainland.
“It’s big, just letting the coaches know that I can play,” he said. “It’s just a great feeling.”
Huggins showed throughout the spring that he can play. He made a near-seamless transition from safety to the star/nickel spot, which moves him closer to the line of scrimmage and more involved in run defense.
He appears to have the athletic ability, cover skills and size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) to fill the role played so successfully by Gardner-Johnson last season.
Former starting cornerback Trey Dean is the presumptive starter at star, but Huggins has put himself in a position to earn significant snaps in the fall.
“Honestly, he’s a great football player,” senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “He’s a hard hitter, he’s an emotional player, so I definitely think he can (fill that role).”
Huggins showed his cover skills with the way he broke on the ball for his pick in the spring game. But what really stood out about him throughout the spring is how physical he plays the position.
“He’s a physical player,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He has the ability to play underneath and he has a little bit of man skills. He’s big, so on the perimeter plays, the bubble plays, he can set the edge on the guy blocking him and turn it back or make a play.
“Then, when he’s a blitzer you got to really account for him because he’s a mismatch on a back because he’s got some size and power to him. So, he really brings some versatility to that position gives us the flexibility to put him in the game, give Trey a blow, and then use him that way.”
Huggins played in eight games as a true freshman last season. The bulk of his playing time came on special teams, where he was a standout, but he also intercepted a pass in the season opener against Charleston Southern.
Overall, though, Huggins said it was a tough first season coming right out of high school.
“Last year I got a little down on myself because there were a lot of guys ahead of me,” he said.
Huggins turned to another Mainland alum, Jachai Polite, for advice.
“I’m close to Jachai Polite,” he said. “He’s my guy. I always talked to him, would go to him, if I needed anything.
“He told me to just keep working and don’t get down on yourself. He didn’t play a lot his freshman year and he’s about to get paid. Just keep the right mindset.”
Huggins says he has a positive mindset now and likes his new position, which he says is a better fit for his skill set.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” he said. “Just getting my hands on guys. I like getting my hands on guys. I’m a pretty physical DB and I like jamming at the line of scrimmage and I like playing man.
“There’s a lot more man. You’re on an island. It’s a lot of one-on-one and I like that. I like that responsibility.”
He showed he can handle the responsibility throughout the spring — and on his interception return for a touchdown in the spring game.
“He made a great break on the ball,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s a guy that obviously has great athletic ability. You want to see him understanding the defense, getting comfortable playing the nickel position and getting those reps and being able to play at a higher level.”