Redshirt freshman Helm poised to start at DB: 'It just all came together'

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida defensive back Avery Helm performs a drill during preseason camp.

The release Monday of Florida’s unofficial depth chart for Saturday’s season-opener against Florida Atlantic provided some clarity at a position under the microscope: defensive back. 

It came as no surprise that junior Kaiir Elam would start against FAU, but who would start opposite him was up for debate throughout UF’s preseason camp following the injury to fellow junior Jaydon Hill. 

Many believed it would be Elijah Blades, the former Texas A&M defensive back who arrived at UF as a graduate transfer in time for the end of Florida’s first week of practice. 

Others believed it would be Jadarrius Perkins, a top-5 junior college transfer and former teammate of Diwun Black who arrived on campus just prior to July, lining up across from Elam. 

Highly touted freshman Jason Marshall was in the mix, too, after consistently impressing the Gators’ coaching staff throughout the eight months he’s been in Gainesville, as was redshirt freshman Ethan Pouncey, UF’s highest-rated cornerback signee in the 2020 recruiting class. 

However, Monday’s reveal gave the nod of the team’s second starter at cornerback to a name that flew below the radar: redshirt freshman Avery Helm. 

More:FAU scouting report

Gators coach Dan Mullen praised the Missouri City, Texas, native on Monday, saying Helm has been impressive throughout camp, although the depth chart for Saturday is labeled “unofficial” for good reason and that Florida plans on rotating consistently in the secondary. 

“Yeah, well, I guess that’s today’s depth chart. It changes every day. Show up on Saturday, you get to see who starts. But I thought he’s done a really good job of putting himself in a position. Whether he starts or not, I don’t know,” Mullen said of Helm. “You gotta come out on Saturday to see who plays the first play of the game. We’re going to play a bunch of guys on the back end. We’re going to rotate a bunch of guys through. I think Avery’s done a really good job of maturing. I think that was a big deal for him.”

Although he didn’t see action as a true freshman until UF’s loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Helm has had an impressive 2021 so far. 

Throughout spring camp, Helm’s physical advancements began to leak out on social media, courtesy of his father’s Twitter account. Helm’s father posted a video of Helm recording a 40-inch vertical jump, later claiming Helm could ultimately improve and add three inches to his total — a stunning display made all the more impressive when considering Helm tore the ACL in his right knee. 

“That's just hard work,” Helm confirms. “You know, God’s gifts and hard work.”

Modesty aside, as if that weren’t impressive enough for the 6-foot-1 Helm, his defensive backs coach, Jules Montinar, shared a video on April 12 of Helm completing the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds in UF’s indoor practice facility. While it’s unknown whether or not Helm finished in 4.3 seconds flat, finishing sub-4.4 is already a faster mark than all but two of UF’s 16 participants at Pro Day. 

Helm’s measurables are certainly impressive and notable, yet Mullen was adamant they’re not the reason he’s already in a position to start as a 19-year-old underclassmen who doesn’t possess significant game experience. 

“Obviously he has tremendous physical talents. But it’s the maturity of learning how to play within the scheme, play within what we’re doing and do what’s expected of him beyond just his physical talents. And he’s worked hard to go learn that, having missed all the time from an (ACL) injury when he got here.”

In Helm’s eyes, he simply views the available and coveted opportunity as the result of the work he’s put in on and off the field. In spite of the unit’s woes last season, the perception is there’s an abundance of potential in the defensive back room, which has pushed Helm to improve more quickly. 

"The level of competition in the cornerback room is very high. You know, we’re all competitors, we all put in a lot of work over the offseason. So, it's an ongoing competition all year, that's how you stay at a high level,” Helm said. "I feel like I just applied what I did in the offseason by working hard in practice and every day just working. It just all came together."

Though Elam may have been penciled in months ago as the incumbent starter, that didn’t mean the job was handed to him. Like Helm and the rest of the group, Elam came out and worked every single day. 

Seeing Elam lead on the field helped further accelerate the development of someone already on the so-called fast track to the field. 

"I'd say one of the biggest things I've learned from Kaiir is he's like a professional, he carries himself exactly like a professional. So I've been, you know, following him, picking up on some of his traits and just watching him,” Helm said. “Just the more time I spend with him, the more I learn. So he's just somebody great to be around."

A reunion of sorts with Montinar also helped, as Helm suddenly had a position coach that was familiar with him as a prospect prior to his ACL injury. 

“Coach Jules was one of my first offers when he was at Texas State, so we got a lot of history together,” Helm revealed. “When I first met him I was at a Texas State camp and he had a lot of energy. So, when I heard he was coming to Florida it was good, because I was already familiar with him.” 

Though Helm has spent just eight short months under Montinar’s watch, he feels as if the defensive back coach’s arrival from USF has helped his development. 

"It's going very well. You know, he stays on me a lot,” Helm said. “He pushes me every day, and he just wants me to be the best me I can be."

Helm has long aspired for this opportunity, a chance to be a top dog in a program that aims to reclaim the title of “Defensive Back University”, saying he’s played football since he was six years old but didn’t admire a player at his position until he watched former Gators All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. 

“I used to always watch Vernon Hargreaves when I was younger, like when I first started playing corner, that's who I used to watch,” he said. “And he always brings excitement, and he plays for the Texans now, so I got to watch him in person a few times."

He doesn’t plan on settling now that he’s standing where Hargreaves once stood not too long ago. 

Now that he has the opportunity Hargreaves once had, to run out of the tunnel come Saturday as Florida’s starting cornerback, Helm doesn’t plan on letting the moment pass him by. 

"You've just got to remember the reason you're there,” Helm said. “I'm there to play football, so that's what I'm showing up to do."