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July 31, 2014
Fall camp positional preview: Secondary
In the days leading up to fall camp, Inside the Gators will take a position-by-position look at Florida's roster and offer a look at every player. We conclude the series today with the defensive backs.
Hindsight may be perfect, but the teams that elected to try to pick on Vernon Hargreaves III during the opening weeks of the 2013 season have to feel fairly silly looking back. Florida's freshman cornerback, playing opposite who many thought at the time were potential first-round draft picks, recorded three interceptions.
Each came within Florida's first four games of the season with teams deciding to take a chance on going after the rookie. Quarterbacks learned to look the other way after a while. It wasn't all roses for Hargreaves (see: UGA, FSU), but it was good enough to be a third-team All-American selection after his first year of college football.
In other words, not too shabby.
Hargreaves obviously has the opportunity to cross the line that separates from the upcoming stars from the game's top names this season. But the more hot-button topics within Gainesville are around him.
There is a steady youth movement that will be largely responsible for the success of Florida's secondary this season. Will Muschamp is certainly not concerned.
"We've always played young players in the secondary, and we've always had success doing it," Florida's coach and safety specialist told fans during the spring.
He has a point. Whether it is Hargreaves or Marcus Roberson or a myriad of players at LSU, Auburn and Texas, Muschamp has never shied away from putting freshmen in the spotlight at defensive back. He cites his explanation that it's easier to play early further away from the ball.
The Gators will be green both at cornerback - where the unquestioned leader is a sophomore, albeit a special one - and safety, though Jabari Gorman is the lone senior of the entire group.
At positions that require athleticism above almost everything else, that's not necessarily an issue. Not only is Muschamp not concerned about playing freshmen; he's convinced these are some of the best freshmen he has ever had.
Position Rating: 7.0 - Muschamp says he will take talent over experience every day of the week, but this group is definitely one that has a lot to prove if it is going to make him sound smart. Hargreaves is mostly unquestionable, but just about everyone else is. This is an extremely strong group of talent, but production and talent do not always cross, especially with so many first- and second-year players. Florida's secondary could go in two very different directions depending on how quickly new starters learn on the job.
- Who starts outside opposite Hargreaves?
One starting job is locked down, and Brian Poole seems destined to be penciled in at nickelback to best utilize his strengths. That leaves a group of five freshmen competing to take the Gators' No. 2 cornerback job. The most obvious candidates are spring enrollees Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, but newcomer J.C. Jackson is another possibility if he recovers from shoulder surgery in time.
- How will the safeties sort out?
Another wide-open position battle, the Gators left spring practice without naming starting safeties for fall camp. Gorman seems like a veteran who can add a stable presence to a youthful group. Keanu Neal has been a coach favorite since arriving on campus but missed the opportunity to grab a starting job during spring because of hamstring issues.
- Can this group live up to the UF standard?
Through good years and bad, defensive backs have become what Florida is best known for over the last five seasons or so. Muschamp and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson have only raised that standard. The expectation seems to be this area of the field will always be effective under Muschamp, but questions are prevalent going into this season because of inexperience.
Pre-Camp Positional Ranking: Cornerback
The Skinny: People have seemed to stop wondering where he will stand compared to other college cornerbacks in 2014 in favor of comparing him to past greats. I've been asked twice in radio interviews over the last week to compare Hargreaves to Joe Haden.
2) DUKE DAWSON
The Skinny: Outside of Hargreaves, no defensive back was more impressive during the spring than Dawson. He turned it on after a couple days of catching flak from coaches and became the mix of power and coverage ability the Gators were looking for.
3) BRIAN POOLE
The Skinny: Similar to other Florida defenders, Poole never appeared to be fully on his game as a sophomore. Playing inside with a more physical role, he struggled to make critical tackles and was an occasional liability in coverage. He'll need to be much more consistent as a junior.
4) JALEN TABOR
The Skinny: His physique resembles that of Roberson, and Tabor started off fast enough during the spring to build assumptions he'd eventually start. He never truly fell off, but the competition is fierce because of what Dawson was able to do.
5) J.C. JACKSON
The Skinny: He'd feel like more of a possibility for the second starting job if it wasn't for a shoulder injury suffered during the spring. Jackson should be cleared by the time the season rolls around, but missing full-contact time could hurt him in a ultra-competitive race.
The Skinny: The kind of lanky frame Muschamp likes to groom at cornerback, Wilson was a leader within his own recruiting class and will immediately have a positive impact on the locker room. Whether or not he is ready to be an immediate contributor remains to be seen. He might also be better suited at safety, where he played in the post season all-star game.
The Skinny: Porter was a high school quarterback when his athleticism struck Muschamp and was the cause of late interest by Florida. He'll be the biggest project of the group but has tremendous upside.
Pre-Camp Positional Ranking: Safety
1) KEANU NEAL
The Skinny: Neal found a niche as a hard-hitting weapon on special teams as a freshman. All signs seem to point toward him finding an increased role as a starting safety in 2014. The biggest concern is hamstring trouble, something he has dealt with off and on since arriving in Gainesville.
The Skinny: The elder statesman of the group has watched and played a reserve role behind future NFL draft picks. The bright side of that? He has learned from some of the best and is now ready to leave his mark in his final season at UF. There are certain physical limitations, but Gorman has come on strong the past two years.
3) MARCUS MAYE
Class: Redshirt Sophomore
The Skinny: Maye's hype train hit an abrupt stop in 2013 when he was essentially benched outside of some dime packages after surrendering a big play in the Miami game. His benching gave way to the rise of Jaylen Watkins at safety, but Maye says he learned his lesson.
Class: Redshirt Freshman
The Skinny: Washington was in the Gators' plans as a bright newcomer who could work at both safety and cornerback before a torn labrum ended his season. Muschamp will likely find a use for him again in 2014 but it is unlikely to come in a starter's capacity.
Class: Redshirt Freshman
The Skinny: There was noticeable rust for Harris during spring camp and rightfully so. The former Under Armour All-American never got into a practice rhythm in 2013 because of a lingering injury. He is currently a long way away from being the player he once was.