Jalen Tabor shines to lead Florida Gators’ defense

The Florida defense wasn’t its dominant self on Saturday, but Jalen Tabor helped get stops when they needed them.

Vernon Hargreaves III went to the locker room in the first quarter, and Jalen Tabor felt like it was his responsibility to lead the group. Ask Tabor and he thinks he’s the best cornerback on the Florida roster regardless of who’s on the field, but there’s no question Hargreaves is the position’s leader.

Without him, the Gators needed Tabor to make plays. He did just that with one interception and five pass breakups.

“Anytime he’s not out there, I feel a burden that I’ve got to step up and take what he normally does. Just not having him out there made me really play for him.”

Whether Hargreaves is on the field or not, this has been a special season for the sophomore Tabor. He has 14 pass breakups on the season despite being suspended for the game against Tennessee, making his fourth in school history for pass breakups in a single season. He’s five behind Louis Oliver’s record on 19 set in 1987.

Tabor’s turnaround began in the spring. After showing potential to be an impact cornerback during his freshman season, the new Florida staff taught him how to better prepare. Tabor started taking football more seriously, spending extra time watching film to break down his own strengths and weaknesses and learning how to do the same when preparing for another team.

“I’ll tell you what, this guy is a play maker now,” McElwain said of Tabor. “Let’s talk about a guy who has totally turned how he approaches life every day -- full turnaround.  This guy understands the importance of what the game means to him. Let’s talk about another guy who loves football. He loves to play the game, he loves to practice. He’s learning how to study.

“He knows now it’s not about dancing, laughing and giggling. It’s about affecting the people around you the way you want to be affected, and that’s in a positive way. He’s playing that way. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

After his dominant game, Tabor was still battling what could’ve been. He saw two more interceptions that he should’ve caught and thought he would’ve scored on one of them. His one interception was the best play of the day. Tabor went to tackle a Florida Atlantic receiver on a crossing route, but while bringing the receiver to the ground, Tabor also ripped the ball out of his hands to give the Gators good field position, which would eventually be wasted on a missed field goal by Austin Hardin.

That happened a few times on Saturday. The defense didn’t play its best game, but it gave the offense enough to pull out what should have been an easy victory. As the offense continued to struggle, the defense didn’t get bogged down.

“That’s what we pride ourselves on,” Tabor said. “Coach Collins has a hashtag ‘put the ball down.’ No matter where it’s at, at the 1-yard line, 50, anywhere. We feel like we can go out there and get a stop. We’ve been through that before, the offense having struggles last year. We know how to go into it when they struggle a little bit, and we feel like they gave us 20 points today, easy. If the offense gives us 20 points, we should win.”

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