Tandem of Trey Dean, Rashad Torrence helping Florida's young secondary improve

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Florida safety Rashad Torrence II (22) tackles Vanderbilt wide receiver Will Sheppard on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

For a pass defense that needed to make marked improvement in 2021, Florida’s injuries in the secondary certainly haven’t been a recipe for success. 

Starting cornerback Jaydon Hill suffered a torn ACL in training camp, and preseason All-American Kaiir Elam has missed the past three games with a knee sprain. 

And against Vanderbilt, nickelback Tre’Vez Johnson was ejected for targeting in the first quarter. Johnson’s backup in camp, Kamar Wilcoxson, suffered a season-ending knee injury in late August.

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With three preseason starters and Wilcoxson all unavailable Saturday, UF allowed less than 200 passing yards for the second consecutive week and third time this year. That happened just twice in 2020. 

“It just showed our depth and the preparation that we put in during the week,” Gators safety Rashad Torrence II said. “A lot of people aren’t at practice. They don’t see the reps that we do, the workouts or anything. So, although it was unfortunate for [Johnson] to go down, it was an opportunity to show just how much work we do put in.”

Florida safety Trey Dean III (0) celebrates an interception during the fourth quarter Saturday against Vanderbilt at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida finished last season ranked 100th nationally in pass defense. Through the first half of 2021, UF’s pass defense is ranked No. 44 and hasn’t given up 250 yards to an SEC quarterback. 

A big reason the unit has played better is the development of safety Trey Dean III and Torrence, both of whom have blossomed under new position coach Wesley McGriff. 

Torrence recorded a career-high 15 tackles against Vanderbilt, while Dean made an interception, two pass breakups and seven tackles. Dean was named defensive player of the game by the staff for the second time in three games (Tennessee) and received a team-issued game ball. 

“Individually, I think they’ve improved unbelievably. Coach Crime has done a great job with those guys,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Dean and Torrence. “When you look at them right now, they’re guys that are taking coaching, they’re guys who have developed. I thought Rashad was an excellent tackler in the game on Saturday. If you look at his ability to make plays in space and tackle and be a physical presence that way, it was good. 

“Trey has done a really good job at playing the ball. If you look at some of his plays, particularly in the second half, his ability to what we call glove the ball. He’s playing tight coverage, they throw, he gets his hand on the ball, incomplete pass. He got his hands on a lot of balls and he did get a pick. So the thing I've seen with Trey is that he’s improved his ability to make plays on balls that are thrown down the field. … Really both of those guys are leaders in that room.”

That leadership has been crucial for a young secondary missing both preseason starting cornerbacks and a third on Saturday. With Johnson ejected, Missouri transfer Jadarrius Perkins stepped in at the STAR position and finished third on the team with seven tackles. 

“He played great,” Torrence said of Perkins. “As a player, I’m pretty sure he didn't know that time was coming but just like last year versus Ole Miss when I didn't know I was going in. But he definitely stepped up to the plate and proved that he was very well worthy of being a Florida Gator.”

Perkins, a top-five JUCO recruit in the Class of 2021, enrolled at UF in late June and played cornerback through the first half of preseason camp. But after the injury to Wilcoxson, Perkins switched to STAR and has been playing there since. 

He credited Dean and Torrence for helping him know his assignments and learn the nickel position, which Dean previously played. 

“Ah man, they’ve made the switch to STAR so much easier for me,” Perkins said of Dean and Torrence. “Being on the field with those guys, they make sure I know what I’m doing. Even if I know what I’m doing, they’re going to check on me. You’ll see a couple times on film, they’re talking to me pre-snap right before the ball’s snapped because they’re trying to make sure that I know what I’m doing. 

“So, I really appreciate those guys, Rashad and Dean. Like, those guys made the transition really easy. … This last game with Tre’Vez going out, it kind of allowed me to get a lot more snaps and a lot more reps. I played 60 snaps. Having all those reps that last game, that was really good for me.” 

With Elam out of the lineup, true freshman cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. has started the last three SEC games opposite redshirt freshmen Avery Helm. Marshall was targeted eight times against Vandy and gave up zero receptions, breaking up a pass on fourth-and-goal at the end of the first half. 

“By the time we got to Bama he had played a lot of snaps, and the stage wasn't too big for him to go play,” Grantham said of Marshall. “And then with Kaiir being out the last little bit, it has kind of forced him to play probably more than normal. He’s done a good job with that. So now, as Kaiir comes back, you kind of now get a little bit of depth at that position because of him and Avery being able to play, and play well. 

“We’ve limited the explosive plays as far as balls thrown over our heads. Even if you go to last week’s game, our corners who are freshmen actually went out and there were multiple shots down the field on them and they handled it. Our guys work well together, they work as a unit and we’ve found ways to get stops without giving up explosive plays. If you do that, you’ve got a chance to be hard to score on.”

The Gators are ranked second in the SEC and No. 15 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 16.5 points per game. Grantham was asked Monday night for a midseason report card on his unit. 

While Grantham didn’t hand out a grade, he did share a stat.

“It's all about competing, it's about winning games and it’s about being hard to score on. If you go back and look, in the last 15 quarters in SEC play we've given up 37 points. So, that's a pretty low number right there,” Grantham said. “We know we’ve got things to work on and these guys are willing to work and will continue to do that, but I like where we are and I like the way we’re progressing.”

Saturday

Who: No. 17 Florida (4-2, 2-2 SEC) vs. LSU (3-3, 1-2)

When: 12 p.m. 

Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850