Florida fought through last season with Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins as the team’s starting safeties. Neither was a true safety, but the two were veterans and the younger players weren’t ready. That might change this season.
After Watkins was a fourth round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles and Riggs transferred to Notre Dame for his final year of eligibility, the Gators will be depending on youth. Will Muschamp said during the spring that he still believes the talent level of the safety position is on par with where it has been in recent years. That’s high praise, especially since the 2012 safety duo of Matt Elam and Josh Evans are currently starting in the NFL.
The most intriguing part of the safety battle is that there’s no obvious candidate that seems like a lock for one of the jobs.
Jabari Gorman is the lone senior of the group and could be primed for his first starting season after waiting his turn and being an important member of special teams and coming off the bench in the secondary. He hits harder than his 5-10, 184-pound frame suggests, and he’ll be an important member of the secondary this year.
Even if Gorman doesn’t start, he’ll see plenty of playing time, just as he did last season. He’ll also be valuable as a mentor for the younger players at the safety spot. While coming off the bench last year, he was sixth on the team with 48 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss. He tied for second on the team with seven pass breakups. Gorman added one interception and one forced fumble while playing in every game.
This might be the year that Marcus Maye shows he’s ready for a starting job. That looked to be the case heading into last year, but the 6-0, 203-pound safety lost his job early in the year. During the second game last season at Miami, Gorman bit on a play action fake and gave up a 52-yard touchdown pass that put the Hurricanes up 14-6.
After that, his playing time decreased in a major way. He made five tackles in the first two games of the year and only seven tackles during the final 10 games of the year. He had to restore the coaching staff’s faith in him during the spring, and it looked like he did that. He has the build and athleticism to take one of the starting jobs, but he has to prove to the coaches that he’s capable of limiting the mistakes on the field.
Behind Maye, there are three second-year players battling for a job.
Keanu Neal made the biggest impression of the trio last year. Most of it came on special teams, but he showed an ability to hold down a position and a role on the coverage units and made numerous big hits to turn heads. The stat sheet looks fairly unimpressive with only five tackles and nothing else, but his impact was bigger than that.
The hope was for him to stay healthy for the spring and win a job then, but his hamstring issues continued and held him out of over half the practices. The expectations are still high heading into fall camp, but he has to stay healthy and show he’s ready to handle one of the starting jobs.
The most important thing for Marcell Harris is health. After an MCL injury kept him from playing during the 2013 season and forced him to redshirt, Harris is healthy and running through practices without pain. There was still rust for him to knock off during the spring, but that happened with time.
The 6-1, 208-pounder will find a role on the team this year, whether if it’s in the secondary or on special teams.
The most versatile member of the secondary is redshirt freshman Nick Washington. He would’ve played last season, but a shoulder injury kept him off the field and forced him to redshirt. Think of him as Florida’s new Jaylen Watkins. He can line up at cornerback, safety or nickel and give the team competitive snaps.
He played safety during the spring because of Neal’s hamstring injury and will be able to move around in the secondary as injuries occur.