Secondary giving up too many big plays

Just under two weeks from the season opener against Idaho, the Gators have two starters locked into the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III will start at cornerback and Keanu Neal will start at safety. The remaining jobs are unsettled, and the secondary has allowed too many big plays in recent practices.

On one side, Florida coach Will Muschamp is happy to see the production through the air. It means his offense, which was disastrous last year, is creating big plays in the passing game.

But for an inexperienced secondary that needs answers, it’s not the best news.

“We’ve got some guys who have done some decent things, we just have to be more consistent,” Muschamp said. “Our coaches need to get off the field and let the players play. That’s what we’re going to do more of moving forward.”

The issue comes on 50-50 balls. When the Florida offense takes a deep shot, the defensive backs have been in position to make a play on the ball. They just haven’t gotten it done. It happened three times in Friday’s scrimmage and continued to be a problem on Monday when the Gators worked on first-down situations and play actions.

Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson, and either Quinton Dunbar or Latroy Pitman, Muschamp couldn’t remember which one, made the plays on deep balls during the scrimmage. It’s a sign of life into a stagnant offense last season, but it’s not the confidence that the inexperienced secondary members need.

“That’s encouraging on one side of the ball, on the other side, it’s not so good,” Muschamp said. “Especially the way we play, we’re going to play man-to-man. We’re going to play tight coverage. There's going to be a bunch of 50-50 balls and we’ve got to go make those plays.”

The knee injury for Hargreaves allowed the freshmen cornerbacks to be thrown into the mix earlier than expected. They got more reps in practice, which has helped many of them improve. Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor were the only two that went through spring practice, and Dawson has been limited with a shoulder injury this fall.

The coaches remain optimistic about the freshmen and know they’ll have no choice but to count on them this fall.

“Those young guys are coming along,” Muschamp said. “We’re throwing a lot at them. We have not stopped our instillation at all for them, so they can understand we’re getting ready for the season and not one game.”

INJURY REPORT: Freshman defensive tackle Thomas Holley will redshirt this fall. He had surgery on Monday on his hip. He had sports hernia surgery before he enrolled at Florida, and that’s what was believed to be causing the issue. However, the Florida medical staff found a labral tear in his hip that required surgery.

“I believe they told me it was a four-month recovery for it,” Muschamp said. “Disappointed for Thomas. Certainly a guy that athletically we were very excited about.”

Defensive back Marcus Maye, who is expected to start at the nickel, has a hamstring strain that will keep him off the practice field until August 25. Offensive lineman Trenton Brown has a contusion on his foot and could return on Tuesday.

Offensive lineman David Sharpe is expected to return on August 25 because of a high ankle sprain suffered in Friday’s scrimmage.

BACKUP QB BATTLE: After watching the film from Friday’s scrimmage, the coaches remain up in the air about which player will win the backup quarterback battle. There’s no timetable for a decision, but it would make sense for the Gators have it decided by the time game week begins so they can make a decision on which players need the extra reps with the second team.

The coaches still see all three players as very close based on their production on the field.

“I think that there's been a lot of positives, but I feel like sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back,” Muschamp said. “As far as getting rid of the football, we've tried to narrow down the package with all of those guys, not do as much as we're doing with Jeff. But we also can't inhibit our offense to continue to move forward, because we're already making some progress at other positions.

“Sometimes you've got to simplify some things to get the execution where you want it."

Whenever the decision is made, it will be one player that wins the job. They won’t use a committee.

“I'd rather name a guy and go with it,” Muschamp said. “I think it's hard, especially with an inexperienced player, they need to get as many reps as possible."

RUNNING BACKS CATCHING THE BALL: Kurt Roper’s offense will incorporate the running backs into the passing game more than in recent years. Muschamp said on Monday that Matt Jones and Brandon Powell are the two most natural pass catchers at the position.

"But Mack Brown and Kelvin have worked on it,” Muschamp said. “Adam Lane, all those guys have worked on the hands. Mark Herndon catches the ball well. There's no question that'll be a huge part of what we do."

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