Jaydon Hill, eyeing starting role, eager for UF secondary to return to form

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida cornerback Jaydon Hill responds to a question from a media member Thursday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

When it comes to Florida junior cornerback Jaydon Hill, the lack of a traditional offseason during the 2020 season didn’t result in a lack in his development. 

The Huntsville, Alabama, native took a massive leap during his sophomore campaign, seeing action in all 12 games last season, including five starts opposite of starting cornerback Kaiir Elam. He would finish the season with seven pass break-ups, good for second on the team —  not necessarily a massive feat, but one that’s impressive when put in context.

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By Hill’s admission, he arrived in Gainesville with aspirations of being a top defensive back while possessing the understanding of a lone coverage. 

That wasn’t going to cut it, and he knew it. 

“When I got here, honestly, I couldn’t even draw up a play besides Cover 3. I knew one defense, Cover 3. But my game has progressed tremendously, my mindset off the field, in meeting rooms. I couldn’t even diagram an offense. Now I can draw up offensive plays, defensive plays and match them,” Hill said. “But honestly, I even feel like my game has progressed — not just weight room and strength-wise with my ACL last year — but off the field, in meeting rooms, and being able to take my game from  meeting room and apply on the field. To think faster and to play faster and all that.”

UF assistant coaches doing their part

He didn’t do it on his own, naturally. Although defensive backs coach Torrian Gray parted ways with the program after the season, leading the Gators to hire Jules Montinar as his replacement, Hill credits Gray for the strides he made in the secondary last season, strides that have put him in position to be on the field with the starting unit when the Gators open the season Sept. 4 against Florida Atlantic. 

University of Florida Gators defensive back Jaydon Hill (23) knocks the ball away from South Carolina receiver She Smith (13) during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville, Fla. Oct. 3, 2020.  [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

“I would say Coach Gray (helped me the most),” Hill said Thursday. “My freshman to sophomore — really last year, I would say was the biggest jump I made when it came to watching film, film study, learning how to watch film.”

Though Hill’s not kidding anyone, especially himself — preseason camp is just beginning, and the definitive work begins now. Hill might be in line to start — UF coach Dan Mullen said as much when asked about Hill at SEC Media Days on July 19 — but he still has to go out and win the job. And with the Gators in line to add Texas A&M graduate transfer defensive back Elijah Blades to bolster the secondary, Hill’s toughest test may be right in front of him. 

Though you don’t need to remind Hill of the need for competition in the secondary, a unit where the Gators noticeably lacked last season when compared to the front-seven and the record-breaking passing offense. 

No one can rest on their laurels in camp with the belief they’ve earned minutes based on prior performance — a general consensus, but one more applicable to a group that finished No. 100 in pass defense. 

It’s one thing to say it and another entirely to go out and do it, however. Hill knows he has two options in camp: either back it up or be a back-up. 

“I feel like it’s definitely, no days can be taken off. At our job, the job we have out on the field, you can’t slack off. I always feel like my spot or anybody’s spot can be taken at any time. I always play with that chip on my shoulder,” Hill said. “We know that we have a lot of ground to cover. It wasn’t a good feeling going out and doing what we did last year. But we’re definitely here to change that around and prove a lot of people wrong.”