Collins inherits loaded Florida secondary

When Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins spent time watching the Gators practice for the Birmingham Bowl, his eyes were often drawn to the back of the defense.

That’s where the strength of his first Florida defense will be.

The Gators still have numbers on the defensive line and returning players at linebacker, but what returns in the secondary is one of the best groups in the country.

All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves returns next season and gave Collins a good look at what he brings to the table in the Birmingham Bowl with a game-sealing interception in the end zone late in the game. Hargreaves was the only guarantee at cornerback going into the season, but Florida started the year with Brian Poole as the other starter.

The pass defense struggled with Poole at cornerback, and it took only three games for the coaches to move Poole back to his normal spot as the team’s nickel. That meant they would have to depend on freshmen Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Tabor earned his first start at Tennessee and was named co-SEC Freshman of the Week after he totaled five tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and recovery, and one pass breakup.

Throughout the remainder of the season, Wilson pushed him for playing time and eventually made multiple starts before the year came to an end.

Collins is already familiar with what the Florida defense from his time in Starkville. Even though the Gators didn’t play Mississippi State when Collins was there, he saw Florida while preparing for other games. When the Mississippi State staff was preparing for a Southeastern Conference offense, they would get film from their previous four games. Often times, Florida was involved in those games and Collins was surprised by how similar the Gators were schematically to what he wants to do.

"They're fun to watch now, just being out at practice,” Collins said. “I would always make sure they were in the breakdown because there are so many similarities and so our guys could see Vernon play and Kiki play. Those things are fun."

The Gators are still trying to find some defensive backs in the 2015 recruiting class to join the group. With rumors of J.C. Jackson moving to receiver, Florida could need some extra numbers at the cornerback position. The Gators will also return experienced safeties like Duke Dawson, Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal. Redshirt sophomores Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could also earn playing time with a big spring.

The talent is there for the Florida secondary to put together another strong year in 2015, but the chemistry on the back end is what could make them elite.

“A big thing out of practice is you see Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen out there dancing,” Collins said. “They really like football and really like being around each other. So whatever their swag is naturally, we’ll build upon that and take it to a higher level.”

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