Gators’ camp preview: Secondary

The Florida secondary is the most talented unit on the team and should anchor a tough defense again this fall.

It starts at cornerback where the Gators will lean on All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. The former five-star recruit has been responsible for covering the opponent’s top receiver over most of the last two seasons, and more often than not, he has dominated the competition. At 5-11, 199 pounds, Hargreaves is strong enough to jam receivers off the line of scrimmage but has the athleticism and instincts to stick with them down the field.

Hargreaves is also the unquestioned leader of the group. After the Jaguars selected Dante Fowler with the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, the defense now looks at Hargreaves as the leader and will count on him to play like it this fall. The junior will likely be taken in the top half of the first round in next year’s NFL Draft.

One of the most intriguing camp battles will be the cornerback position opposite of Hargreaves.

Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson split time at the position last year during the second half of the season. It was Tabor that earned the first start between the two, coming when the Gators traveled to face Tennessee. He was named co-SEC Freshman of the Week after recording five tackles, one forced fumble and recovery, one pass breakup and one sack. Tabor’s freshman season ended with two sacks, one interception and eight pass breakups, the third most on the Florida team.

As the year went on, Wilson got more playing time. He ended the year with 22 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups. At 6-1, 209 pounds, Wilson is a physical corner that has proven he can stick at the position after there were questions about him moving to safety during the recruiting process. A strong offseason has turned Wilson into an important piece of the Florida secondary.

Behind Hargreaves, Tabor and Wilson, the numbers aren’t great. Brian Poole started last year at cornerback, but when the secondary struggled, he was moved to the nickel and opened the spot Tabor and Wilson split. Poole still makes sense as the starting nickel this season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ends up playing some cornerback in the fall.

Redshirt freshman Deiondre Porter and true freshman Chris Williamson are the other options at cornerback. Porter’s 6-0, 177-pound frame makes him an intriguing option at cornerback. His long arms make him a strong defender when the ball is in the air, but he needs to bulk up before the Gators can put him on the field consistently. Williamson came on late in the recruiting process and earned offers from many schools across the southeast, including Florida, thanks to a strong senior season. He could play receiver or cornerback, but he’ll line up on defense for the Gators.

If Poole does need to play cornerback, there are other options Florida could use at nickel. Duke Dawson has switched between cornerback and safety during his time in Gainesville and could make the most sense at nickel behind Poole. After enrolling early during the spring of 2014, Dawson played cornerback and didn’t look overwhelmed. However, he spent last fall at safety and returned an interception for a touchdown in the season opener against Eastern Michigan. He might not get the hype that classmates Tabor and Wilson do, but Dawson has the talent and versatility to help Florida in multiple ways this fall.

Other options to keep an eye on at the nickel would be Marcus Maye and Nick Washington. Maye started last season as the nickel when Poole played cornerback, but Maye struggled to keep up with quicker receivers in the slot.

Maye and Keanu Neal lined up as the starting safeties in the spring and should hold onto those roles heading into the season. With Maye (6-0, 207 pounds) and Neal (6-1, 216 pounds), the Gators have two players that came on during the second half of last season. Maye was third on the team with 62 tackles, adding five pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

Neal had 45 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He’s the kind of safety that makes receivers hesitate a little before heading over the middle, but there’s still room for him to grow as a junior.

Behind Maye and Neal, Marcell Harris heads into his redshirt sophomore season. After a knee injury kept him limited in his first year on campus, last season was his first healthy year to adjust to the college level. He has the size and hitting ability to play the safety position.

An intriguing long-term player at safety is freshman Kylan Johnson. The Gators added him late in the 2015 recruiting class after Johnson played mostly quarterback at Skyline High School in Dallas, Texas. He has familiarity with the passing game from his high school years, and that could benefit his transition to safety.

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