Spring Breakdown: The Safeties

Talk about an enviable position. Your team just wins a national championship with a secondary starting three sophomores and a freshman. Your pass defense was the best in team history when it comes to interceptions and your top three safeties are returning with 13 of the 26 interceptions on the year. Coach Chuck Heater likes what he has but knows there is room for improvement and expects it.

Tentative at best was probably the best way to describe what was expected from the safety position going into last season. However, as the season unfolded, the nation saw one of the more complete trios in all of college football. Sure tacklers, players able to snatch the ball out of the air, and guys that fly around and make plays all over the field.

Now the group is a year older and they add back a senior in Dorian Munroe that was supposed to be a starter when the season started in 2008. Sophomores Ahmad Black and Major Wright started the entire season at the two safety spots while freshman Will Hill started a game or two at the nickel and provided depth throughout the season at both spots as well.

These four will be the backbone of a secondary that played very well last year, but according to Heater, is looking to play even better in 2009.

"They can do a lot better," Heater said. "We can watch the tape and see that were aren't executing it perfectly. There is always an opportunity to improve and they are smart enough to know that."

The Gators held the high flying aerial attack of the Oklahoma Sooners to only 14 points to win the BCS title game. It was more than 40 points less than their season average and nobody saw that kind of defensive effort coming. Still, there were some big plays made by the Sooners, just enough to allow this staff some teaching material to make these guys better.

"He made a couple of great throws, but there were a couple of things we didn't execute perfectly," Heater said of Oklahoma's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford. "He threw it quite well, but there are a couple of times we helped him. It's an opportunity to keep coaching and close the gap to be as perfect as you can be."

Heater isn't into setting goals for the group who helped the defense break the Florida season record for interceptions by hauling in 26. He knows this group has a chance to do better and that is what they are working to do without setting numerical goals.

"We were happy with what we accomplished," he said. "We train hard and compete hard and make sure we are getting better and those things will happen. If your mind is right and practicing well and talented enough, you are going to make those kind of plays. That is the challenge, we just want to keep getting better."

One of the most remarkable stories of the entire season last year was the play of Ahmad Black. Black moved from cornerback to safety in the off-season. He had a pretty good spring, but nobody could have projected his seven interception and five pass breakup season that he had. Heater knows there are some things he needs to continue to work on.

"Ahmad Black is a very athletic guy and has to develop physically and keep his weight up, keep getting stronger and improving his running," heater said. "He's very athletic and a great space player."

A returning half season starter in 2008, Major Wright had a good year himself finishing third on the team in tackles with 66, having four interceptions and six pass break ups. Heater believes we are just starting to see the things that Wright is capable of doing on the field.

"Major made tremendous improvement as a tackler from the year before," Heater said. "He needs to improve as a one high safety and overlap with the things we do back there so he can play like the safeties we are used to having around here."

Hill was the true freshman that was slowed early in the season by injury but came to college with all the accolades to be the next big name in Florida's secondary. When put in the games, Hill hardly disappointed.

"Will Hill just needs to keep developing like he did last season," Heater said. "The spring and summer program will be very instrumental in doing that for him.

"He is deserving to have the opportunity to be out there. We will make some creative ways to make sure our best 11 players are out there. We will put him in the nickel spot and know he's going to play a lot of football for us. We will keep evaluating that. I hope we are two deep across the board and see what happens."

Munroe is the bonus for the 2009 season. Sidelined in 2008 with a torn ACL Munroe was supposed to be a starter at the strong safety spot. This will be a big spring for Munroe has he tries and wrestles playing time away from established players already at the position. Heater said Munroe is 100 percent and ready to go.

"Dorian is back and doing everything, he has trained and done everything every day that everyone else has done," Heater said. "He is progressing well and building confidence in that knee. This spring he won't be held back from anything, we'll just have to see how it goes."

The newcomer to the bunch is true freshman Dee Finley who enrolled in January after signing with Florida in 2008 and having to take a semester of prep school. Finley is coming along, but is most likely another luxury in the secondary for this season, but could be a force on special teams. Heater likes the way Finley has stepped up since arriving on campus in January.

"He came in pretty much out of shape," heater said. "He stayed with it and progressed and has done a good job in the class room. He has done a nice job up to this point. It's a big jump coming in here and is acclimating himself to it. He is getting better."

The Gators did lose junior Bryan Thomas who will be on scholarship with a medical exemption meaning he will not count against the scholarship total. Thomas has been nursing a sore knee for over a year now and is the cause for the exemption.

What I want to see...

More Will Hill on the field. He made plays when out there and has the best reactionary instincts to go along with physical ability maybe on the entire defense.

Wright improved tremendously from the middle of the season on and is a force. I would like to see him get some time at strong safety and see whet he can do as a defender in the box.

I believe Black is already bigger than last year and that was the only knock on him. Heater wants him to work on his speed as well, but there is no denying that Black is one very good ball player.

The big thing for Munroe is to get over the knee injury and be able to play without it bothering him. Different players react differently to recovery, so this is a big spring in those terms. He isn't a playmaker, but a steady force in the secondary.

Finley will have to make a name for himself on special teams. Barring injury, it will be tough for him to get on the field on defense when the game is on the line. He needs to make a difference on special teams and the staff will take notice.

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