Gators 2017 Spring Preview: Secondary
Feb. 28 marks the beginning of spring football for Florida as Jim McElwain enters his third season as UF’s head coach. As practices are soon approaching, Inside the Gators will take a position-by-position look at Florida's roster. Today, we look at the Gators’ defensive backs.
THE MAIN PARTICIPANTS:
-- DB Duke Dawson (senior; 5-10, 208)
-- DB Chauncey Gardner (sophomore; 5-11, 204)
-- S Marcell Harris (redshirt senior; 6-1, 211)
-- S Nick Washington (redshirt senior; 6-0, 197)
-- CB Joseph Putu (senior; 6-2, 195)
-- CB Chris Williamson (junior; 5-11, 191)
-- CB McArthur Burnett (redshirt freshman; 5-9, 174)
-- S Garrett Stephens (redshirt senior former walk-on; 5-9, 188)
Non-contact this spring: CB C.J. McWilliams (redshirt freshman; 5-11, 171; torn ACL)
Do not arrive until the summer: CB Marco Wilson (freshman; 6-0, 180), CB C.J. Henderson (freshman; 6-1, 175), DB Brian Edwards (freshman; 6-3, 195), DB Brad Stewart (freshman; 6-0, 190), DB Shawn Davis (freshman; 5-11, 190), S Donovan Stiner (freshman; 6-2, 185)
Departures: CB Jalen Tabor (declared early for the NFL Draft), CB Quincy Wilson (declared early for the NFL Draft), S Marcus Maye (graduated)
LAST YEAR: Under the guidance of defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, Florida's secondary was one of the best not only in the SEC, but in the nation. The Gators finished the year second nationally in passing defense (allowing just 148.5 passing yards per game) while ranking first in average opposing quarterback rating (92.86).
It was a productive season for both Tabor and Wilson, who combined for seven interceptions (with two returned for touchdowns), 12 pass breakups and two sacks. Florida's starting cornerback tandem of Tabor and Wilson, arguably one of the best in the country, opted to turn pro at the end of the 2016 campaign, leaving Florida with a considerable void to fill at both outside corner spots.
Meanwhile, many of Florida's other defensive backs flourished. Before suffering a season-ending broken arm nine games into the year, Maye was in the midst of yet another productive campaign as a Gator (50 tackles, one interception, six pass breakups). Washington was also a consistent contributor at safety, but perhaps the biggest breakout star was Harris, who finished the year with a team-best 73 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
Not only did Harris make considerable strides in coverage, but he was a force in the box against the run and made a handful of key stops - especially at the goal line numerous times, including on the final play of Florida's thrilling 16-10 victory at LSU for a goal-line stand.
After a sophomore slump, Dawson looked comfortable handle a role at Florida's starting nickelback. The junior defensive back was one of Florida's most disruptive DBs, finishing the year with a team-high seven pass breakups while also logging a forced fumble and an interception.
Florida's depth in the secondary took a toll later on in the year, especially at safety with Maye (broken arm) and Washington sidelined, as well as freshman safeties Taylor (shoulder) and Lenton (foot). Dawson was also sidelined with an ankle injury. That's when Gardner stepped up to the plate, as the former Rivals100 defensive back started the final three games of the season at safety against FSU and Alabama. Gardner combined for 17 tackles, three interceptions and a pass breakup during that three-game stretch and established himself as one of the faces of Florida's secondary for the future.
Williamson started in the first game of the season, with Tabor suspended following a practice altercation, but eventually Williamson's role diminished as the year went on. Putu was a minor contributor, appearing mostly on special teams in his first year with the program.
Taylor saw most of his action as a freshman on special teams before suffering his season-ending injury at FSU. Lenton (foot) and McWilliams (torn ACL) each redshirted after suffering their respective injuries during the first week of fall camp, while Burnett also went down the redshirting path.
By National Signing Day, Florida addressed the departures of Tabor, Wilson and Maye by adding an impressive group of six defensive backs signees (four four-stars and two three-stars).
KEY QUESTION: With Tabor and Wilson turning pro, who will start at both outside cornerback positions this spring - and at nickel, when Florida opts to go with a 4-2-5 look?
That'll be the biggest question moving forward for the Florida secondary, which replaced Gray (who left for the Washington Redskins after just one season) with USF defensive backs coach Corey Bell.
Will it be Dawson and Gardner? Dawson spent most of his 2016 season playing at nickel, and before that saw a good number of his reps at safety as a freshman and sophomore. He's versatile enough though to play at multiple spots in the secondary, so it wouldn't be surprising if Florida moved Dawson, a veteran, to one of the outside cornerback spots while also allowing him to contribute some at nickel as well.
Gardner's situation is also a wildcard. As a true freshman, he played at safety in the spring, cornerback at the start of the fall, then saw a good amount of his time at nickelback, and then moved back to safety when the depth there took a hit due to injuries. Gardner looked quite comfortable at safety, but with the need for impact players this year at corner, he could be an option as well.
Williamson, Putu and Burnett will all make a play this spring for potential playing time at cornerback, while McWilliams works his way back from a torn-ACL and goes non-contact.
It should be interesting to see how this battle shakes out, but there's a chance we may not get a good answer until fall training camp, when Florida's six freshmen defensive backs get a shot. Players like Marco Wilson, Henderson, Stewart and others could potentially see immediate time at cornerback in 2017. How the rest of the group performs relative to the freshmen should be key in determining that.
PLENTY TO PROVE: This is an important spring for Williamson, who already has half of his collegiate eligibility behind him and could be in danger of losing his chance at a spot in the rotation with six talented freshman defensive backs set to arrive this summer, if he doesn't step it up. A former four-star recruit from the 2015 class, Williamson has the talent and athleticism to possibly be a contributor next season, but he hasn't been able to put it together yet through two years as a Gator. After a rough outing at UMass in the season-opener, where he was burnt twice for big gains on double moves, Williamson's role diminished as the year went on.
Now with Tabor and Wilson moving on, Williamson - like many of the other corners on Florida's roster - will have a shot at a role on either the outside or at nickel. This spring should tell us a good bit about where he stands.
THEY COULD SURPRISE: Putu and Burnett are two names who could make the competition in the secondary more interesting. A JUCO signee who was a late addition on National Signing Day in 2016, Putu didn't see much of a role in 2016 but managed to make a couple of impressive plays during his limited action. An ankle injury also nagged him for some time this past season. Now, he'll make a push for a regular role in the rotation, and he could very well be a player who sees plenty of snaps as a senior.
In need of gaining weight and learning Florida's defensive playbook, Burnett redshirted this past season. Although somewhat undersized, Burnett is a disruptive corner in man coverage who could open some eyes in spring camp - especially if he's now figured out the playbook. At times during the 2016 season, Burnett was lost or in the wrong spot on plays during practice and was exploited in coverage because of that.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: Where Gardner plays in the secondary this spring. The versatile defensive back out of Cocoa, Florida, really found his groove at safety during the final few games of the 2016 campaign, memorably logging two interceptions against Iowa en route to Outback Bowl MVP honors. However, Florida has solid contributors at the safety position with Harris and Washington, a pair of redshirt seniors who each have starting experience. Taylor, Lenton, Davis and Stiner also provide a good amount of depth at that position.
The Gators have often cross-trained their defensive backs in years past during the spring and fall camps, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Gardner moving around often this spring. At which spot he looks the most comfortable in the coming weeks will be worth monitoring.
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