It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Dee Webb, Atkins and Lewis were lined up to give Florida an experienced capable trio at corner. With those guys in line, Florida would wait to see how the freshman competed with the McCollum twins for the remaining corner spot in the two-deep.
But Webb made a critical mistake in turning pro, settling for seventh round status in the NFL selection process. Add to that the departure of Atkins and the Gators situation at corner couldn't be much more precarious.
NCAA Rule Brings Potential Starter
As you are now aware, an NCAA rule allowing student-athletes to transfer without sitting out if they are entering grad school has the potential to significantly help the Gators' situation at corner. Ryan Smith will graduate from Utah later this month and begin grad school in Gainesville with two years of football eligibility remaining. It's the second time an SEC school has utilized that rule this summer, with Vanderbilt already acquiring a potential quarterback in the same manner.
Smith was a freshman All-American under Meyer and secondary coach Chuck Heater in 2004, but struggled to fit in with a new scheme and coach last season. He managed just 27 tackles and one interception last season. He appeared in nine games, starting seven. However he started just one of the last seven games of the season.
The rule allowing these instant-eligibility transfers has been criticized in some quarters, but I think that's nonsense. Imagine trying to change a rule that would in effect punish student athletes who graduate with eligibility remaining but wish to attend graduate school elsewhere. The NCAA loves to pretend to care about athletes being real students. It would be the ultimate in hypocrisy to change this rule.
Of course, it's also the ultimate in hypocrisy to force student-athletes to sit out a year for changing schools but having no such restriction for coaches or athletic directors.
Corner Still an Area of Concern
Even with the addition of Ryan Smith, the Florida cornerback situation remains a major issue heading into fall drills. The Gators are likely to start two guys who ended last year as backups; Reggie Lewis at UF and Smith at Utah. Behind them you have a pair of fifth-year seniors who have seen precious little playing time on the college level; Tremaine and Jermaine McCollum. Florida also has plans for three incoming freshmen to get a chance to challenge for playing time; Jacques Rickerson, Markeih Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis.
Maybe those seven guys will create enough competition that a reliable group of four can handle the position. However, there are some other options UF has to at least think about.
- Justin Williams ----- There are those who consider the incoming freshman from Folkston, Georgia to be a better cornerback prospect than wide receiver. As a junior he had five interceptions, running two of them back for touchdowns. He would give Florida another dimension at the position with his 6'2" 185 pound frame. If early playing time is a priority, this is a better position at which to pursue that goal.
- Reggie Nelson ----- Count me as someone opposed to this option, but it has to be looked at. Nelson is a playmaker who has excelled in the nickel slot last season. The nickel position is hugely important in the Gator scheme because of the lack of depth at linebacker, so moving him would just be exchanging problems. It's important to note that last year Nelson had 46 tackles, four sacks, but just one interception.
- Jemalle Cornelius ----- It is not unprecedented for the Gators to move someone late in their career to solve a major problem (Eli Williams). With Bubba Caldwell coming back to join Dallas Baker, Florida could probably do okay with Jemalle at receiver. He certainly has the speed and change of direction skills needed to play corner. He is also an incredibly unselfish kid who likely has already volunteered to give it a shot.
- Brandon James ----- Another member of the incoming class who has the speed and ability to start and stop quickly that cornerbacks must have. James is coming in primarily as a kick return man. There's a reason why corners make such good return men. Think of Lito Sheppard and Keiwan Ratliffe as recent examples. Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson also come to mind.
- Corey Brewer ----- Hey, if cat quick basketball players can't get away from "Spiderman" than what receiver will be able to? Plus, opponents can forget about throwing a fade route in his direction! (Of course I'm kidding!)
One way or the other, Florida will figure out who to best send out there at corner. But common sense says the Gators will blitz a bit less and zone a bit more than they might prefer. Ideally, the defensive line will play up to its abilities, making life much easier for whoever plays corner in 2006.