New UF secondary coaches molding young group, leaning on Dean, Elam

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Florida assistant coach Wesley McGriff has a long history in the Southeastern Conference and has NFL experience.

Florida coach Dan Mullen broke down the strengths and weaknesses of his team following the final spring scrimmage Saturday. 

The last position he mentioned was the secondary, where he expressed concerns about the depth. 

“I think we feel comfortable with a couple of those guys,” Mullen said, “but we need a bunch of those guys to really grow moving forward.”

Those couple of guys are junior cornerback Kaiir Elam and senior safety Trey Dean III. Elam was the lone bright spot in Florida’s secondary last year and earned first-team All-SEC honors, while Dean settled in at his new position after starting at cornerback and nickel during his first two seasons. 

Their new position coaches, Wesley McGriff (safeties/nickel) and Jules Montinar (cornerbacks), are leaning on Dean and Elam to set an example for the younger defensive backs. 

“I think the sky’s the limit in terms of his potential,” Montinar said of Elam, praising his attitude and leadership. “I can’t say enough great things about this kid because he leads by example. We’ll be in a meeting room and some of our younger guys who haven’t learned this defense, they’re not taking notes. And this is Kaiir’s third or fourth time hearing this stuff and he’s writing down everything us coaches are still saying. I think he’s a student of the game and I’m really fired up about having him in the room.”

Montinar was hired away from USF and spent the previous season as an assistant at Georgia. McGriff came over from Auburn and was the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss prior to that, where he recruited Dean in the Class of 2018. 

“Trey has a tremendous work ethic,” McGriff said. “Of course he has all the measurables, size and speed, tremendous energy. Sometimes you have to tone him down, which is a great quality. But the opportunity to have a young man like that in your room and coach him, that’s what you live for, that’s what you dream of. I’m excited about coaching Trey and watching him take the next step. He comes to the building ready to work, does a good job in the classroom studying tape, asking questions, so he’s very engaged.”

Dean and Elam aren’t the only returning defensive backs with experience. Rising junior cornerback Jaydon Hill started five games last season and had 14 tackles and seven pass break-ups, while safety Rashad Torrence II made three starts as a freshman and recorded 25 tackles on the year. 

Montinar is high on Hill and also has history with a couple players at his position.

“Jaydon Hill, he did a really nice job as well for us too the past year. Has really good size, very athletic, very physical,” Montinar said. “Jahari Rogers and Avery Helm are two guys from Texas that I remember in the recruiting process when I was coaching back at Texas State. Jahari was a high school quarterback, he ran track, had really good speed. Avery was a really good player out of high school. I was also trying to get those guys when I was at Georgia. 

“And then we got two early enrollees: Jason Marshall and Jordan Young. Those guys have done an unbelievable job learning the defense. Those guys should be in high school. Jason has done a great job this camp, has an unbelievable attitude, comes to work every day. Jordan Young has done a great job for us, too. Very smart, very athletic and he loves football. So the good news is we've got Kaiir and Jaydon has got some experience, and then the young guys have done a really nice job of answering the bell.”

Marshall and Young are two of 10 underclassmen in Florida's secondary, and three more incoming freshmen will join the team this summer. Eight of those 13 defensive backs will be coached by McGriff at safety or nickel, and he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“Oh the challenge, it’s beautiful,” McGriff said. “When the cup is empty, you have an opportunity to come in now when they’re young and make sure that you teach them good habits and develop technique and fundamentals. These guys may be young, but they have strong football IQs, unbelievable work ethic. There are a number of guys that want to come in at night and watch video. ‘Coach, I know we can’t meet, just set the video up. I’m coming up to watch pass-skel.’ And that’s really exciting as a coach. 

“The biggest thing I’m seeing is those young men are competing, and while they’re competing they’re embracing each other. So it’s not going to be a difficult guy making sure we’re getting the right guys on the field. I think the biggest thing we have to remind ourselves is what Coach (Mullen) says, ‘Make sure we coach for depth.’ Don’t make the mistake of coaching just the frontline guys. When they’re young, they’re more eager to learn and they have a little bit more energy, so I’m excited about that.”

Despite concerns about the depth and youth in the secondary, Mullen said he feels good about the group. Florida’s defensive backs had a lot of communication issues last season, but McGriff and Montinar have already helped clean that up in spring ball according to their boss. 

“It's a very young group. So for those guys, they have all new guys. A lot of new guys playing,” Mullen said of the players McGriff and Montinar inherited. “I thought they bring high energy and attention to detail in every little thing that they're doing. They've built a bond and you see those guys, kind of the leadership within the group and those guys playing closer together. And the communication. I think we're much cleaner in our communication on the back end.”

Montinar