What’s left: Safety

The Gators moved players around at safety during the 2014 season but found a good mix by the end of the season.

The challenge going into the 2015 season will be to find a consistent starter next to Keanu Neal. The Gators rotated plenty throughout the season and dealt with some injuries at the position. Neal suffered a high ankle sprain early against Georgia, missing the remainder of that game and the next two against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Marcus Maye also missed the season opener of the year, making senior Jabari Gorman the only one to play every game at safety.

He’ll leave before next season, making Neal and Maye the likely starters going into spring practice.

Neal ended last year with 37 tackles, tying for the team lead with three interceptions. He also had one tackle for a loss, four pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery that he returned 49 yards for a touchdown at Alabama.

Despite missing one game, Maye was fifth on the team with 54 tackles. He also had three tackles for a loss, one interception, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. Maye’s season started out slow. The coaches put him as the starting nickel, but he struggled to cover slot receivers and gave up big plays early in the season.

A few games into the year, the coaches moved Brian Poole back to nickel and increased Maye’s snaps at nickel. Maye makes sense to stay exclusively at safety next season and provide depth there.

Behind Maye and Neal, the Gators have three young players that could all break out -- Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.

Dawson is in this story instead of the cornerback story because he spent most of the year at safety. If Poole elects to leave early and enter the NFL Draft, Dawson could make sense to move inside and fill the nickel spot. However, he played mostly at safety this year and played well for a true freshman. He made 13 tackles on the year, but the highlight came in the season opener when Dawson became the first true freshman in Florida history to return an interception for a touchdown in his first game.

Dawson played cornerback, nickel and safety when he enrolled early and went through spring practice in 2014, and his versatility will be important for the Florida secondary going forward.

Harris heads into his redshirt sophomore year with high expectations. He became an important part of the Florida special teams units last season, making big hits and that turned heads throughout the second half of the season. That’s usually what happens before a player takes off and becomes an important part of the defense.

Will Muschamp said multiple times last season that it was essentially Harris’ first season as a football player in college after he was forced to take a redshirt in 2013 with a knee injury. Harris improved as the season went on and could be poised to make a role for himself on the defense in 2015.

Washington is similar to Dawson in that the coaches can use him to play multiple roles on defense. He took reps at corner as a freshman in 2013 before a shoulder injury ended his season. He was mostly a factor on special teams in 2014 and is a smart enough player to handle multiple roles on special teams. He needs a strong spring to force the coaches to play him on defense.

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