GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida sophomore Chauncey Gardner has the skill set to play anywhere in the secondary. Line him up at cornerback, nickel or safety, and the versatile playmaker will make his presence known.
But after redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris suffered a season-ending torn right Achilles tendon two weeks ago, the natural thought process was that Gardner would move back to safety when the Gators begin fall camp on Thursday.
Not so fast.
Florida coach Jim McElwain on Wednesday said that, for the time being, Gardner’s primary focus in camp is playing cornerback.
“As of right now, we’ve got to see kind of where that competition is,” McElwain said. “I know this: We feel comfortable with Chauncey being able to move to nickel, safety, corner, but we still want him early in camp to really focus on the corner because he didn’t get a bunch of it last year.”
With Gardner’s focus on mastering the cornerback spot, the door is open for competition at safety.
Redshirt senior Nick Washington seems poised to hold down one spot as the only remaining player with quality game experience at safety.
The second spot is up for grabs.
That could mean expanded roles for sophomore Jeawon Taylor and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton, both of whom spent the spring rehabbing injuries.
It could mean one of Florida’s six true freshman defensive backs earns a starting job out of the gate. Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner both are expected to work primarily at safety. Brad Stewart is expected to get reps at nickel corner.
But it also could mean veteran defensive backs who primarily took reps at cornerback — senior Joseph Putu or redshirt freshman C.J. McWilliams, for instance — move to safety.
Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s priority is less on who is playing what position in the secondary and more on making sure the best players are on the field for any given play.
“We’re playing the best guys at that particular time,” Shannon said. “And like I will tell you, by the end of this camp it may be three corners playing, four corners on the football field. It may be four safeties on the football field. I cannot tell you. It’s just whoever is the best fit and can give us a chance to win.”
As for Gardner? He doesn’t care what position he’s playing as long as he finds a way to get on the field.
“I’m just doing what helps the team,” he said. “Whatever I have to do — if they throw me out there at safety, if they throw me out there at nickel, if they throw me out there at receiver — I’m just here to help out my team.”
Gardner played in all 13 games last season, starting the final three at safety after season-ending injuries to Washington and Marcus Maye.
In those final three games — Florida State, Alabama and Iowa — Gardner recorded 17 total tackles and 3 interceptions. He earned Outback Bowl MVP honors after intercepting two fourth-quarter passes, returning the first for a touchdown. Most of the time that he was on the field, Gardner was playing either safety or nickel.
Gardner said his goal as a freshman wasn’t necessarily to rack up big statistics. Rather, he focused on taking away something from each game — whether it was a new technique in coverage or staying composed while playing at a rival school.
“Experience to me is learning,” Gardner said. “That’s the most experience I had from last year. I learned as a young guy that you had to pay attention to detail and the details are going to get you to the next level. … When you’re out there as a young guy, you just have to go out there.”
After the season ended and Florida lost its top two cornerbacks — Jalen “Teez” Tabor and Quincy Wilson — to the NFL draft, Gardner spent the spring solely taking reps at outside cornerback alongside Dawson due to the lack of depth. Florida’s six defensive back signees didn’t arrive on campus until the summer.
“I thought he did a great job,” McElwain said. “That kind of was his natural position, and yet what he did, moving from nickel and playing nickel and then going to safety, was obviously highlighted in the bowl game.”
Shannon compared Gardner to former University of Miami safety Antrel Rolle, an All-American with the Hurricanes who was selected eighth overall in the 2005 NFL Draft and played in the league for 11 seasons.
“With Chauncey, he can do multiple things,” Shannon said, “but you’ve got to have him tuned in to what he needs to get done.”
For the time being, that means playing cornerback.