GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In taking over one of Florida’s vacated high-profile cornerback spots this year, Duke Dawson doesn’t like to think of himself as replacing either Jalen Tabor or Quincy Wilson.
He doesn’t view it that way, as filling the shoes of one potential first-round NFL draft pick or the other.
The senior simply looks at it as his opportunity.
“I mean, I (don’t have) to fill no shoes. I know what I can do, so just coming out working every day and just perfecting my craft, it’s going to be all right,” Dawson said Thursday after Florida’s second spring practice.
The reality, though, is the Gators have two considerable voids to plug at that position after Tabor and Wilson combined for 7 interceptions, 2 touchdown returns and altogether stifling coverage in 2016.
The reality is, no matter where Tabor or Wilson end up playing next fall, they will maintain a presence in The Swamp. Florida’s cornerback play will be judged according to the standard that has been set, most recently by that duo.
Dawson doesn’t need any extra motivation, though.
He made the logical decision to return for his senior season so he could prove himself as a full-time corner, shifting over from his nickel role. Now, the spotlight is his.
“I mean, I played corner in high school, so it’s really nothing different. It’s just me knocking the rust off,” he said. “I’ve been playing nickel for the past year, safety. I mean, I’ve been moving around a lot, so just getting my feet back wet at the corner position, it’s going to be all right.”
That’s what the Gators are hoping.
They are largely rebuilding the defense that carried them to 9 wins, another SEC East title and a bowl victory last season. The defensive line must replace a couple of key cogs, the linebackers will be young, but the secondary remains perhaps the biggest question of all.
The Gators have pieces, led by Dawson, fifth-year senior safeties Marcell Harris (the team’s leading tackler in 2016) and Nick Washington and promising sophomore Chauncey Gardner Jr. (the Outback Bowl MVP), whose position is yet to be determined.
And then Florida will add 6 incoming freshmen defensive backs in the summer, with a couple likely needing to contribute right away.
Dawson, though, could do a lot to solidify the back of that defense if he can prove himself as a primary cornerback.
All the while solidifying his professional football prospects.
Dawson says in the end it was not a hard decision to return for his final season and take advantage of that opportunity.
“Sheesh, some days I wake up, I mean, I have different thoughts. Just sitting down with my parents, we talked that day before (making the decision) and my parents, they’re going to always tell me what’s right,” he said. “They’re not going to make me do something that I don’t want to do. They made me make my own decision and that’s what I did.”
Dawson had a terrific second half of his junior season and ended up with a team-best 7 pass break-ups along with an interception returned for touchdown, a forced fumble and 3.5 tackles for loss. Listed at 5-foot-10, he’s smaller than both Tabor and Wilson, but he scored decently according to Pro Football Focus’ data last season.
Heading into the bowl game, PFF had graded Dawson at an 87.2 (out of 100) for the season while tracking a 51.3-percent completion rate on passes thrown to his coverage area (20 catches on 39 targets) with only 1 penalty and 2 missed tackles. Meanwhile, the PFF data logged a 78.3 passer rating against his coverage, as compared to stronger numbers for Tabor (43.3) and Wilson (31.7) — which both ranked among the best in the SEC.
If there’s one thing Dawson needs to work on the most this spring he says it’s being disciplined with his eyes.
“Sometimes I just get caught looking at the wrong spot half the time and that messes me up. Right now that’s what I’m really focusing on,” he said. “(New defensive backs coach Corey Bell) teaches to all of us DBs having great eyes.”
Soon enough, many eyes will be on the Gators’ rebuilt secondary and, in particular, the senior the coaches and fans alike are hoping can help offset the loss of all that star power at cornerback.
The bar has been set high for that position and for the defense in general, but again, Dawson says he’s only looking forward.
“That question (I’m not) really too much worried about. It’s the next man up, so you can’t worry about what the past guys did,” he said. “You’ve just got to focus on the present. That’s what we’re doing.”