Is Tre'Vez Johnson the 'unicorn' Florida seeks for its STAR position?

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Tre’Vez Johnson is next in line to start at Florida's "Star" position on defense.

For the past three years, Florida has been searching for the next star at its ‘STAR’ spot on defense. 

A unicorn, more specifically. 

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Since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson thrived as the Gators’ nickel in 2018, four different players have started at the position and sophomore Tre’Vez Johnson is next in line. 

Is he the “unicorn” UF seeks at the STAR?

“I believe so,” said Johnson, who primarily has played nickel in preseason camp. “I believe wherever the coaches put me, I’m going to do my job. So, if that’s what you call it.”

That’s the word Florida coach Dan Mullen used last season when describing the STAR position and why it’s so difficult for defenders to play there. 

“The reason we call it the STAR, and the deal is, you've got to be a star player,” Mullen explained. “You've got to be able to do multiple things. Corner is kind of a cool deal, but we don't ask them to do as much as we ask the STAR to do.

“You want somebody that is a great cover guy, that can be physical at the point of attack, that can rush off the edge. But those guys, you know, they're kind of unicorns, right? You got to go try to find them, and there's not a lot of them out there. You do see one, and it's a pretty special deal, you've got to be excited that you have one.”

Mullen was excited about signing Johnson in 2020, calling him the “sleeper” of the class. Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham identified Johnson as a fit for STAR during his recruiting process.

He didn’t play nickel at Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, but showed cover skills as a starting cornerback and played with physicality whenever lined up at safety. 

“I believe that I was versatile enough coming out of high school to play wherever they wanted me to play, so it wasn’t too much of an adjustment,” Johnson said of the STAR spot. “The mental part, I think that’s something I had to make a transition to from last year. It’s not just about going out there and playing. 

“You gotta know football, you gotta know tendencies and stuff like that. So I’m just trying to improve my game mentally as well as physically.”

Johnson said he’s bulked up to 200 pounds after playing in the 190-193 range last year. He appeared in all 12 games, registering 15 tackles, two pass breakups, one tackle-for-loss and an interception. 

“I think it could have been better obviously,” Johnson said of his freshman campaign. “I’m not satisfied with how I played. Right now I’m just working on improving every day, trying to progress and get better.”

Johnson will replace senior Brad Stewart, who went undrafted after starting the final nine games of 2020 (eight at STAR). Linebacker Amari Burney, safety Trey Dean III and former cornerback Marco Wilson also started at the position after Gardner-Johnson, now with the New Orleans Saints. 

As he prepares to make his first career start Sept. 4 in the season opener against Florida Atlantic, Johnson has spent time in the film room studying Gardner-Johnson’s game and other top nickel defenders in the NFL. 

“That’s kind of like a hybrid position so you gotta be able to do a lot of things,” Johnson said. “So I’m just trying to improve my game, whether it be covering, whether it be me being in the box tackling, fitting up and being physical. 

“And just watching how Chauncey and other guys in the league doing it at a high level, I just try to take a little bit from their game too. You just gotta stay in there and watch the guys. And really whatever the coach calls, just do your job.”

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