After working at Florida as a graduate assistant from 2010-11, Callahan already knew some of the players in the Florida secondary whether he coached them early in their careers or recruited some of the younger ones when he was at UCF.
He knew the type of talent he’d be coaching immediately in Gainesville, but even some of what he has seen surprised him. The overall athleticism of the group is even better than he expected and their length makes it tougher for offenses to complete passes into tight windows.
The defensive staff said they would keep most of the scheme the same, but there have been changes. Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor said on Tuesday that they’re playing more zone than in recent years. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins joked that week that he loves his cornerbacks because they always want to play man coverage, but the change in the Florida defense this fall has been to play more zone.
Callahan said the key for the defense is to make sure they’re disguising their coverage better.
“We don't want offenses to be able to know if we're playing zone or man,” Callahan said, acknowledging that the previous staff called more man coverages. “We don't want to major obviously with one thing and minor in something. We want to try and keep it split 50-50. Offenses, they're always talking about wanting to be 50 percent run, 50 percent pass. The same thing goes with the secondary in terms of coverage.
“If you're sitting there playing man every play, well guess what, those offenses can scheme because they're expecting man. The other aspect we're trying to do is when they think man, we're playing zone. If they think we're playing zone, now we're playing man. That's what we're trying to build on."
KEEPING AN EYE ON HARGREAVES
Vernon Hargreaves III has a lot more responsibility on his plate this fall. Last season, he was the team’s starting cornerback and played on a few special teams units. That is a thing of the past.
On Saturday against New Mexico State, Hargreaves started at cornerback while also serving as the team’s punt returner, a gunner on punt coverage unit and a member of the kickoff coverage unit. Then the Gators put him in on offense and threw a quick pass to him, going for six yards before he fumbled the ball out of bounds.
It’s a lot on the plate for the All-American, and Callahan said they’re monitoring him closely to make sure he can handle the added responsibility without seeing a drop in production at cornerback.
“We have talked about it,” Callahan said. “At the end of the day, he’s a cornerback. Like Coach Mac always says, you’re a special teams player before you’re an offensive or defensive player. His role on special teams is obviously as important if not more than it is on defense. In terms of whether we increase his reps, we’ll continue to change that by the week. But again, you’ve got to appreciate his ability and the things that he can do.
“Like Coach Mac says let’s put the players in position to make plays. He’s one of those guys, whether we have to put him in position to make plays on offense, special teams or defense, we’re going to sit there and do that. But we’re going to be smart about what we do.”
WASHINGTON EARNING A ROLE
When the Gators completed spring practice and started to prepare for the summer, Nick Washington knew he had to make changes. He felt stiff and played like it during the spring. He set up a plan with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kent to work on his flexibility to become a more productive part of the secondary.
The work paid off with a start in the season opener. It might not have happened if Keanu Neal was healthy and Marcus Maye was off his suspension, but it was a clear reward for Washington’s improvement.
“He came back into fall camp kind of like a new man,” Callahan said. “He was really healthy, really in shape. And you started to see this guy flash a little bit more than you saw in the spring. He is smart enough to put himself in the right position to make the right calls to get everybody lined up in terms of the 'backers and the secondary. That's where he earned his keep and obviously gave himself an opportunity to start last Saturday."
FACING A NEW OFFENSE
Callahan saw the Florida offense struggle in 2010 and 2011 before leaving Gainesville, and he knew that was the problem in recent years. However, facing the Florida offense under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier has been different and given the defense looks it needed to get ready for the season.
“As talented as we are, it was kind of like a chess match out there,” Callahan said. “We may cover something right the first time, then he comes back and tweaks something. They make everything look the same. As a defender trying to play an offense, when you start to try and get those tips, those tendencies, they do a good job of making everything look the same. Facing those guys, they only made us better. They stressed us tremendously in camp. Things that we’ll see out there on Saturdays, it’s only bettered us as a group.”