Let’s start with the position that has the most going for it and that is at safety. Seniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington return at safety and both played very well in 2016. The two actually split time at safety in the beginning of the year and then when Maye went down with injury, they both became starters.
Marcell Harris played in all 13 games a year ago and started in eight of them. Harris has a nose for the ball and ended up the season as the leading tackler (73) for the Gators, even with having started just eight games. He plays big and physical on the field and his penchant for finding the football led to four tackles-for-loss, one sack, two interceptions, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Nick Washington played in the first 10 games of the season and started six of those. He missed the last three games because of injury but is ready to go for spring. He’s a sure tackler, a heady player, and also a big member of the Gators’ special teams. Washington finished with 45 tackles, which was sixth on the team, one interception, two pass breakups and one quarterback hurry.
Unfortunately for the Gators, two key reserves won’t be practicing this spring. Both sophomore Jeawon Taylorand redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton have injuries that will keep them out until fall practice. Both could use the time on the field, but are expected to bring a lot to the table in the fall.
While the NICKEL position will likely be someone new, we should see a few different bodies rotate there during the season. Taylor or Lenton above could be a factor and some true freshmen that arrive in June will get a look as well. I think for purposes of the spring, we need to group both NICKEL and cornerback together as we could see any of the following line up at any of the three spots.
Sophomore Chauncey Gardner is going to start on the field somewhere and it could be at corner, safety, or NICKEL. He’s an aggressive player with as much speed as anyone on the team. Gardner played in all 13 games for the Gators in 2016 and led the team in special teams tackles. He was inserted into the starting lineup for the last three games and may have been the best defender on the field for those three games. He totaled three interceptions (one for a touchdown), nine tackles against Alabama in the SEC Championship, and was one of four freshmen in the history of Florida football to be named the MVP of the Gators’ Bowl game.
Senior Duke Dawson is expected to step up big for the Gators in 2017. He will move from his NICKEL position to one of the starting cornerback spots outsid, but the staff is very confident in Dawson. Dawson started seven games at NICKEL and recorded a team high seven pass breakups adding an interception that he returned for a touchdown. Another sure tackler, he finished with 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in 2016. The Gators need Dawson to step up big time in the role of either Wilson or Tabor this season.
Senior Joseph Putu is a guy that the staff needs to take a big step forward this spring. Blessed with big time athletic ability and maybe the hardest hitter on the entire squad, Putu has been slow to learn all the nuances of the corner position. In junior college he lined up in a man-defense all the time and dodn’t have to learn different zone schemes and the like. This will be his first spring and he will get a lot more time on the field, they need him to be a player after finishing with just four tackles last year.
Junior Chris Williamson is another that has the physical gifts, but hasn’t put it all together yet. Williamson struggles more with the technique at the corner position and doesn’t have the aggressive nature most of the time that they need when playing the style of defense the gators play. He was on the field in nine different games a year ago and started one, but finished with just five tackles on the year.
Redshirt freshman McArthur Burnett is yet another physically talented player that just has not been able to pick up the intricacies of the corner position in his year on campus. This is his second spring as he arrived on campus in January of last season, but it has been a struggle learning the college game. He’s athletic enough to be the return man on special teams, but until he earns proper drops in the zone game, he will be a liability on the field. It is a big spring for Burnett.
While redshirt freshman C.J. McWilliams won’t play with contact this spring, he will get a lot of work. One of the most athletic players on the entire team he can learn a lot this spring even without the contact. McWilliams tore his ACL early in fall drills last season and missed the entire season. He should be 100% by August and looks to factor big time in the rotation in 2017.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain says…
On Duke Dawson moving from Nickel to corner…
“He'll be corner full-time. Obviously his ability to play nickel is only something that is not only going to help us but help him in the future as it did Brian Poole. I think his ability to be able to show all that stuff is going to do nothing more than strengthen our depth, help the Gators get better and help him personally."
On getting Harris and Dawson to return for their senior seasons…
"I think Duke and Marcell both, man, that's huge for us. As it was a year ago kind of with Marcus, you know. It has as much to do with their investment and showing the young guys, this is how we go about it here and this is part of your being part of this legacy. What is their legacy going to be handed down to these young guys. And I think that's really good.
On playing guys in different spots…
“We'll be able to move Chauncey a little bit out to some corner as well. We'll be able to rotate some things both corner, safety, nickel so we can create some depth in there. You know, missing in the secondary, just talking about that in general, obviously missing Jeawon and Quincy (Lenton) hurts. And yet it's an opportunity for some other guys to get a lot of reps so those guys are going to have to have great summers because we're going to count on them as well in that rotation in the back end."