How do you go from the top unit on the team to possibly the worst unit on the team in one season? I can give you three big reasons and some more.
When you are talking about the Florida secondary, you have to mention the loss of three 2017 NFL Draft second round picks in safety Marcus Maye, and corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson. When you combine that with the loss of first rounders Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves III from the 2016 draft and Brian Poole who was an NFL starter all of 2016, the talent and depth in the secondary has been depleted in a big way and in a hurry.
The Bad Stuff
The worst thing the Gators have going for them is lack of numbers, especially with guys that are already on campus. Florida fielded four healthy corners in the spring in seniors Duke Dawson and Joseph Putu, sophomore Chauncey Gardner, and redshirt freshman McArthur Burnett. Dawson played exclusively at Nickel last season and Gardner played Nickel/ safety. Putu hardly played at all and Burnett never saw the field. That is a whole lot of inexperience on the outside on an island like these corners are asked to do at times.
At safety, the numbers were actually worse. They moved seldom used junior Chris Williamson to safety and he was the only backup the Gators had at safety this spring without having Gardner or Dawson play back there. Injuries kept sophomore Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton off of the field in the spring.
The Possible Bright Side
Lucky for Florida’s secondary, football seasons aren’t in the spring. Although we don’t know exactly what we will get out of some of the extra bodies that will be in the fall, there is certainly a chance that they could step up and make this unit a much better one than we expect right now.
Let’s start with three guys that are already on campus. C.J. McWilliams, while not in contact all spring, had a terrific 14 practices according to all that were able to watch him the entire time. He’s rangy and physical. His corner skills are great and the only knock outside of staying healthy is that he needs to add a little more weight. If he can play with contact like he does without contact, he will start in 2017. The two safeties that missed spring in Taylor and Lenton are the other big ones. Both were expected to contribute s freshmen. Lenton missed the entire year with foot problems while Taylor played a lot of special teams and was derailed late in the season with an injury. If both can go, they add quality depth and instantly.
There is also a bevy of freshmen that will be showing up on campus in June. Corners Brian Edwards, C.J. Henderson, Brad Stewart, and Marco Wilson along with safeties Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner are a talented group and at least three of them will see significant playing time out of necessity.
The Good Stuff
Starting senior safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington should be among the top third combos at the position in the conference in 2017. When you are talking defense and in the SEC, that is a compliment. Both are smart and know what they are doing. Both are leaders in the secondary and they need that with such a young group coming. Harris is really physical, while Washington is more of the rangy type. Both have improved a great deal in their time on campus.
Dawson and Gardner are very talented. They lack experience on the outside, but both have shown to be play makers in their time on campus. Maybe one winds up back at the Nickel spot if a true freshman or McWilliams really takes over, but the Gators can win with those two playing on the outside. They just have to stay healthy.
Florida has to find depth at all the secondary positions and maybe a starter on the outside out from the players that didn’t go this spring. It is hard to say which one would be moved back to Nickel, but if someone else emerges that would allow Dawson or Gardner to get back inside. It should maximize the talent in the secondary.
Other than that, the young guys have to get on the field and grow up in a hurry. Florida is too familiar with injuries on defense and those young pups are going to have to see the field one way or another.