Florida must replace a key starter and develop some depth, which was missing both last season and this. Last season Florida safeties combined for just four interceptions and three of them are gone.
As with the other parts of our series we're trying to break it down very simply. We look at what each unit lost, the best returning player, other veterans needed to step up and coming attractions. For these purposes we'll consider the guys who enrolled early as "veterans" if they saw significant playing time this spring.
What was lost ---- The Gators say goodbye to Major Wright who was a solid performer for three seasons. Wright surprised many with his decision to turn pro after his junior year, but he surprised even more with his fast time at the combine that helped propel him into the third round of the NFL Draft. I always felt he was better suited to play strong safety but he was a productive player with 32 tackles and three interceptions last season. That brought his career totals to 165 and eight respectively.
Best returning player ---- Ahmad Black did not enjoy as productive a season in 2009 as he did in '08, but he was still second on the team in tackles (70) including a QB sack and one interception. "Black Magic" as he was dubbed by former cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford picked off seven passes in his sophomore season including a spectacular pick of Sam Bradford in the BCS Championship Game.
Other returning safeties ---- While Black is the best returning safety, Will Hill is the one with the most potential. Hill has the size and speed that the pros drool over and could easily go from part-time player to high draft pick with a big junior year. Josh Evans saw some playing time in '09 but mostly on special teams. He was injured during spring practice and missed a lot of time. That opened the door for a pair of freshmen who enrolled early. Matt Elam needed just one practice to attract attention and one scrimmage to show he would play immediately. Elam is not likely to dislodge either starter, but he's likely to be the nickel man when Florida goes to five DB. He is an incredibly natural football player. Jordan Haden, Joe's little brother seemed more tentative and more, well like a freshman this spring. Look for him to battle Evans for the No. 4 spot in the unit.
Coming attractions ---- Florida is slated to add one big time prospect to the safety mix this fall when Jonathan Dowling joins the fray. Dowling, who the offensive staff would love to put at WR bring unusual size (6-4, 195) to the position so he'll be easy to spot. He was the No. 5 safety in the country according to Scout.com. Dowling played in the Under Armor All-American game and intercepted two passes, yet somehow was not named MVP. Nevertheless this is a big time athlete.
The Bottom Line ---- Florida is going to be fine here with two excellent starters and "The Natural" already established as the third guy. The competition for the No. 4 spot will be between Haden and Evans, but don't be surprised if Dowling enters the mix in a hurry. It's important at least one of the three shows significant potential with Black a senior and Hill a junior with the ability to advance to the next level.
That's our look at the entire Gator team heading into the critical off-season conditioning program. Is it August yet?
Spring Evaluation: Safeties
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