Editor’s note: In advance of Florida’s Orange & Blue Debut, SEC Country is highlighting one storyline of note each day to help prepare fans for the culmination of spring practice. Thursday’s entry, the second in this series, looks at Florida’s new starters in the secondary. The first entry focused on new kicker Eddy Pineiro.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida lost more from its secondary than any other position group on the 2015 team.
Those starters, however, may be the easiest to replace because of the depth and talent that’s been waiting behind them.
Fans shouldn’t see much of a drop-off, if any, from the Gators’ defensive backs in Friday’s Orange & Blue Debut.
Cornerback Jalen Tabor is now the biggest name on Florida’s defense as he takes over for Vernon Hargreaves III, a projected top-10 pick in April’s NFL draft.
“I would say I’m ready for it,” Tabor said of the spotlight. “I just want to show everybody that I’m the complete corner. I can play press man, play up, press bell, come up and support the run. That’s going to be big.”
Statistically, the former five-star recruit had a better season last year than Hargreaves, who called Tabor the “best corner in college football.” With the hype that surrounds Hargreaves and Tabor, Quincy Wilson is sort of a sleeper at cornerback despite shutting down Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
“Yeah, of course,” Wilson said when asked if he feels forgotten. “I’m just working hard so that when the season comes I can make my plays. I need to capitalize on my opportunities, catch the ball, get interceptions when the ball comes my way.”
A third junior for UF, Duke Dawson, has a bigger role as well this year. He solidified himself in spring practice as the starting nickelback, where he steps in for senior Brian Poole, who had an impressive performance at Florida’s Pro Day last month.
“Me and Brian, we have a close connection,” Dawson said. “We used to watch film together and work on the small things, like leverages and having good eyes. It was great. Being in the film room and just hanging out with him has helped me.”
The Gators are also without Keanu Neal, arguably the top safety in this year’s draft and another potential first-round pick. Redshirt juniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington are the candidates to replace Neal.
“Keanu was a great player for us,” Washington said. “He made a lot of plays the three years he was here. I’m looking to fill it. I think it’s a hole that can be filled and will be done.”
Washington and Harris have both received first-team reps in practice, and they’re neck and neck for the starting spot opposite free safety Marcus Maye.
“Competition level is very high,” Harris said. “Every DB is out there trying to make a play. It doesn’t matter if you play safety or cornerback; we’re all trying to make plays. Me and Nick, we’re going to come out and compete every day. That’s how we’re going to keep it.”
Maye, a USA Today first team All-American last season, chose to come back for his senior year to improve his draft stock. Despite losing his sidekick in Neal, he’s confident with Harris or Washington next to him.
“They came along right away,” Maye said. “I feel just as comfortable with them as I did with KeKe. Those guys are doing well communicating with me. We’re all on the same page.”
Keeping that page in tact is new defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, who believes his unit can be an elite secondary in 2016 after what he’s seen in the spring.
“I haven’t had a problem with their effort, which has been awesome,” Gray said. “Obviously coming in to coach these talented guys, the most impressive thing about this group is they are so competitive and are willing to work. It’s really been a pleasure for me to walk into that.”