Gator Secondary Compares to Some of the Best

Those that watched them perform in the spring could somewhat see it coming. The Florida secondary was going to be much improved in the 2008 season compared to the season before. Just how far they came is a bit on the unbelievable side. It may be the single most improved unit on the Gators' squad last year and why these Gators are headed to play for the BCS Championship in less than a month.

In this case, the numbers don't lie. Florida had a hard time stopping anyone on defense last season and most of the issues came through the air. The Gators gave up an average of 258.5 yards per game passing in 2007 and 19 touchdown passes in 13 games. Compare that to a team only giving up 174 yards passing per game and just 10 touchdown passes in the same number of games. They went from the 98th ranked pass defense in 2007, to the current 19th ranked pass defense in the country.

A lot can be blamed on the youth and inexperience of last season. There is not a doubt about that. However, when the season was really underway, this defensive backfield may have been younger than last. Two new starters were inserted by the third game of the season in sophomore Ahmad Black at safety and true freshman Janoris Jenkins at corner back. Black wasn't even playing the position in 2007 as he was a non-factor at cornerback. Jenkins was toying with high school wide receivers in 2007.

Sophomore Major Wright returned after starting half the season at free safety in 2007 and so did cornerback Joe Haden, who earned freshman All-American honors in 2007. They were the early foundation for the guys with less experience to lean on this year. It was enough of a foundation to make this a pretty special group.

Other players also contributed big time to a season that has really been marked by the progress of this secondary. True freshman Will Hill has been a force. Even though he hasn't started a game, he has played a lot of meaningful minutes and made some huge plays for a defense that prided itself on big plays.

Junior cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis started the season at one cornerback spot. He improved his play from a year ago, but had to heed to the exceptional play of the freshman Jenkins.

Junior cornerback Markihe Anderson saw his playing time increase as the season wore on. He played a big part in the SEC Championship win against Alabama and is a steady replacement for either cornerback spot or in the nickel when presented with a quick slot receiver on the opposing side.

This secondary even drew comparisons to that 2006 secondary that had two All-Americans in Reggie Nelson and Ryan Smith roaming the backfield. That secondary had all 21 interceptions on that special season while the 2008 secondary currently has 19 of the Gators 24 on this season. The 24 mark is the highest team total in school history. Assistant Defensive Coordinator and Safety Coach Chuck Heater realizes the similarities in the two defenses.

"We were pretty comparable," Heater said of the 2006 and 2008 secondaries after the Gators were announced for their second BCS Championship game in three seasons. "We had Reggie Nelson who had a lot of picks at free safety, Ryan Smith had a lot of picks at cornerback. I think there is a little more balance (this year), we have 24 interceptions...everyone has contributed to that. Both were very good and very comparable."

The two biggest surprises of the secondary in 2008 were the freshman Jenkins and sophomore Black. Jenkins has played like an All-SEC player in just his first year in college. Heater loves what the youngster brings to the table.

"Janoris has the ingredients you have a difficult time measuring...which are his awareness, ball skills, and instinctive abilities...and they are off the charts," Heater said. "For a freshman to come in and do what he did is remarkable. We knew he had a certain ability level, but the other things you don't coach as much. He has been incredible and very productive player for us."

Jenkins couldn't see himself going anywhere else out of high school. He has always been a winner and he saw the winning ways of the Florida football program. With one game left he has three interceptions on the year to go along with a team leading 11 pass breakups. It seems teams keep trying to test the true freshman and he just keeps responding.

"It feels good to come to the Florida Gators and go to the National Championship as a freshman," Jenkins said following the Gators SEC Championship game which propelled them on to the BCS game in Miami. "I came in and expected to do big things. I wanted to go to a championship team because I did that since high school. It feels good to be a Gator."

The other true freshman of influence in the secondary is Will Hill. Hill showed exceptional ability at safety, but also allowed the staff to play a nickel package with him in the nickel spot covering some of the bigger slot receivers in the league this year. He also became a force, blitzing and getting after the quarterback forcing quick throws. Hill had a somewhat slow start due to an injury, but it was apparent to the staff they needed to work him onto the field. He was key in the second half of the SEC Championship bringing added pressure to Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson.

"Will Hill played that spot (the nickel) a little more in the second half," Heater said. "Because we were pressuring and he's a blitz guy. We just started (changing our personnel) a little more and using him."

Heater knew Hill was going to be a player. Even with the exceptional play of Black and Wright at safety, Hill was a guy that the Gators wanted to get on the field to make plays. Hill is currently sixth on the team in tackles, has two interceptions, and has made a number of other plays this season.

"He got it going once he got past that ham string injury he had," Heater said. "We had the opportunity to play him in some games and get him some confidence,. Then we decided to find a way to get him in the games by personnel groupings on the field. We started doing that and he started playing a lot more football."

Not many doubted Hill or Jenkins physical ability to play at the SEC level. That can't be said for safety Ahmad Black. In retrospect, Black may be the biggest surprise of the season for the Gators, surpassing anything most would have thought he could accomplish in his role. Heater loves what he is getting from the cornerback convert.

"Ahmad Black was huge," Heater said about the surprise impact he made on defense this season. "He gave us a lot of production at that position. We got a very athletic player on the field at that safety spot. It was a matter of physically whether he could hold up. He holds up great and it's great getting another good athlete on the football field. He plays at great pad level and really low. The equalizer is tackling guys around their legs, when you tackle them low, they are all the same at that point. He does a great job of that."

It was Heater that wanted Black to get a look at safety before spring practice in March. Black played safety in high school and as it turns out, it was just a good fit. That change led to Black getting a team leading six interceptions, five pass break ups, and 54 tackles which puts him fourth on the team with one game left.

"Coach came to me one day and said he wanted to see me get some reps at safety," Black said. "I tried it out and did well. I think its just a natural position for me."

Joe Haden continued his impressive play from a year ago. He currently sits second on the team in tackles with 77, has three interceptions and 10 pass break ups. A freshman All-American in 2007, Haden brought some stability to the secondary locking down one cornerback spot before the season even started.

Sophomore Major Wright has also been a stabilizing force. Known for his big hits, Wright is third on the team in tackles with 57 on the season. He also has three interceptions and five pass breakups. Wright believes the secondary understands each other much better than they did a year ago.

"I feel like the back end communicates together," Wright said. "We have great chemistry, we study film more. As a secondary we are starting to talk to each other and try and figure our opponents out."

He also believes there is some comparison in the way this secondary plays to the last Gator National Champs of 2006.

"The 2006 group was very tough, but I feel like we are up in that category with them," Wright said. "We might not have as many big time players, but I feel we are close."

There are really only two holdovers from that secondary from 2006. Juniors Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis didn't play much but made impacts on special teams or spot duty on defense that year. Their roles have increased over time. Anderson is happy to contribute to such a stout defense.

"It feels good again to be back in there," he said about making it to the championship game. "I was here when we won the SEC and BCS Championship as a freshman. It is just a great feeling to come out here and contribute more this year and win an SEC Championship and go back to the place where we set our goals to be every year."

Anderson knows the loss to Ole Miss early in the season was a pivotal point in this championship year. He believes this team has remained focused on their goal of just winning the next game ever since.

"Since that Ole Miss game, the way this team came together on and off the field, we have just focused on the next game," he said.

Their focus and closeness allowed them to dig down in the SEC Championship game and come from behind in the fourth quarter. It is something they either hadn't had to to do or haven't been able to do in two years. They understood during the game, if they played a little cleaner, they win against the Crimson Tide in a bigger way.

"Fortunately this team is close, so we know what is going wrong when it does," Anderson said. "If someone is out of their gap or someone didn't get over the top to make a tackle. If we eliminate all the missed tackles and big plays, big down-field catches in the middle of drives, we win this game by a lot."

Mistakes can compound quickly against Oklahoma who the Gators will face on January 8th for the National Championship. The Gators give up less than one touchdown a game through the air and Oklahoma averages just shy of four touchdowns per game through the air. The Sooners are number one in the nation in passing efficiency and throw for 356.5 yards per game. The Gators will have their hands full with preparing for the game and Major Wright knows it.

"It is a big challenge for our secondary to just get out there and go," Wright said. "We need to get out there and show them what we are made of. We will just keep watching film, preparing, and keep doing things that will keep us going."

Said Black matter of fact like, "They throw it around a lot, we just have to go in there and try to calm it down. "


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