The Gators are the big winner here. Tabor has been special since the day he arrived at Florida.
As a true freshman after a spring of learning the defense in 2014, he played in all 12 games and started in five of them. He led all freshmen at Florida with 31 total tackles and had 4.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 8 pass break ups, and an interception. He was named a freshman All-American by The Sporting News.
Last season, after learning a new defense and working under a new coaching staff, he improved a great deal. He appeared in 13 games and started nine. He was named First Team All-SEC by Coaches, AP, and ESPN.com and was a Sporting News Second Team All-American. He finished with four interceptions and was the first Gator since Brandon Spikes in 2009 to return two interceptions for touchdowns during a season.
New Florida defensive back coach Torrian Gray sees Tabor at a talent level of some of the All-Americans he has coached.
“He’s right in there with the mix of those guys, the Brandon Flowers, the Kendall Fullers, the Kyle Fullers,” Gray said after a big scrimmage on Friday. “They all have got an ‘it’ factor about them. They’ve all got a high football IQ. He’s right along in there with those guys.”
Gray knew about Tabor years ago.
“He came to our camp when I was up at Virginia Tech,” he said of Tabor. “He was like in ninth grade and you could tell that he was advanced for his age obviously.
“When you see a freshman at camp, he’s got great footwork, great feet. He’s already tall, he’s got length. You’re like, ‘Oh, he’s only in ninth grade.’ (It was) one of those type of deals.”
Confidence is a big part of the game for cornerbacks in major college football. It is something that Tabor has never lacked.
“Of all, in that position you’ve got to believe in yourself,” Gray said. “All those guys that are really great at the position, they believe in themselves. Because you’re going to get beat, not everything is going to go well. So he has that savvy, that cockiness or arrogance or whatever, competitiveness about him that you’ve got to have to be a top-flight corner.”
At 6-foot and 199 pounds, Tabor has the size and strength to be a physical player and that is the type of game he plays.
“Tackling ability, I’ve seen him make a couple of tackles out here today (at the scrimmage) that I was very impressed with,” Gray said. “The running backs didn’t fall forward, the receivers didn’t fall forward and get a lot of yards, so I’m pleased that he’s conscious of that and challenging that man. You know, ‘let’s be better as a tackler.’”
Tabor has a great feel for the game. He’s one of those players that if you watch him for just a little bit he is going to make a play or two. If you keep watching, he will really show you how he game is played. It has been no different this spring.
“He’s been getting some pass breakups, getting some interceptions,” Gray said. “He’s got a knack for being able to make plays. You’ve just got to put him in position to be able to do those things in a disciplined manner.”
“My biggest challenge with Tabor is to mentally process the game before the ball is snapped, play in, play out,” Gray said. “Play with details as far as just technique and fundamentals and not just rely on his ability to get him so far but to maximize it and do all of the things before the ball is snapped, too.”
There is no doubt that working on those fundamental things is something Tabor will approach with fervor like he approaches the ball in the air. According to head coach Jim McElwain, there aren’t many that love the game like Tabor does.
"Oh he's been really good,” McElwain said about Tabor’s spring this year. “He missed a couple with a leg (injury), but when he came back he didn't miss a beat. I just like the way he goes about his (business). Here's a guy who really loves to play the game. There's something to be said about really loving football and this guy loves it. The way he practices and goes about his business is something you wish everybody would do."
Most project Tabor as a guy headed to the NFL draft in a year and leaving college early. While McElwain was quick to friendly scold the media for bringing it up, he understands what the near future may hold for the young man.
"He's pretty special, and rightfully so,” McElwain said about the thought of leaving early. “If a guy has an opportunity to be in that top group, go. There's no reason, and yet you have other guys who come back and would benefit which I think was proven. In his case, I know this… he loves to play the game of football and it affects the people around him in a positive way. The guy likes to practice. I mean, we took it away from him because of that (injury) that he had and he was upset. You wish everybody was that way because he likes to play.”
All of this adds up to why Jalen Tabor is very likely to have a special year in 2016 if he stays healthy. Beyond that, we can only imagine.