GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Jalen Tabor recalls, he and fellow Gators cornerback Quincy Wilson didn’t converse much as freshmen. They were competing for playing time, rivals in a way.
By the end of their first year at Florida, though, that had changed. They became friends, pushed each other, saw their shared potential.
And now as they’re creating new ways to keep their friendly competition going, sometimes they don’t even need to speak to understand each other.
“It goes unsaid, but the other one knows, like, ‘OK, it’s time for me to get a pick.’ He’s just a great friend of mine and I’m just happy for him really, for the both of us,” Tabor said.
With good reason.
For all the preseason hype, all the storylines about how Tabor and Wilson could form one of the best cornerback tandems in college football this year, they might even be exceeding expectations at this point.
With Florida’s offense stumbling yet again early in the Gators’ 40-14 homecoming win over Missouri on Saturday, Tabor brought fans inside The Swamp to their feet with a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the second quarter. It was his fourth interception in five games and gave the home team a 13-0 lead.
And 2 minutes, 11 seconds later, Wilson followed suit with a 78-yard interception return for touchdown. It was his third pick in six games and ensured that all the momentum was with the Gators from that point forward.
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CHOMP CHOMP! That @GatorsFB Defense is too ?.
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“I mean, it’s sort of a competition. A really good friendly competition,” Tabor said. “We talk about how we want to be the best in the country and, you know, I got one, he got one. I was trying to get another one. … That’s been the story the whole season. Like Kentucky, he got one, I had to get one. And Tennessee, he got one, I had to get one. And today I got one and he had to get one. So, really good competition.”
“I think Quincy was jealous so he was ready to jump (a pass),” Florida coach Jim McElwain joked.
It would be a subjective analysis to determine if Tabor and Wilson are indeed the best in the country, but they sure are making a strong case.
“We focus on us. We know if we take care of business, I mean, we know what we can do. That’s 7 (interceptions) in 5 games between the two of us, two to the crib,” Tabor said. “We really don’t pay attention to anybody else. We feel like if we handle business, we’re the best.”
Said Wilson: “Once he gets a pick, he already knows it’s time for me to get one. … We always say, ‘Man, we’re the best in the business.”
What’s amazing is that the Gators lost a star cornerback in Vernon Hargreaves III, who was the No. 11 overall pick in the NFL Draft this year, and yet they are as good as ever in the secondary.
And, yes, probably as good as any team in the country at that spot.
Overall, Tabor has 9 career interceptions and 3 touchdown returns. Wilson is up to 6 career interceptions while that was his first pick-6.
It was playing behind Hargreaves as newcomers to the program that first created the competitiveness between Tabor and Wilson.
Speaking after the game Saturday night, Tabor told the story of how they went from guys battling for playing time to close friends.
“At the beginning of freshman year, we (weren’t) that close. We was competing for the same spot because we had Vernon. So, you know, we didn’t bounce ideas off each other, we really didn’t speak at all. It was kind of like we (were) fighting for the same spot, so we weren’t friends at all,” Tabor said. “Towards the end of our freshman year we kind of both realized, like, ‘Hey man, he can play a little bit.’ And, you know, we felt like we was kind of getting up there with Vernon a little bit. And (there was no need to) envy each other — I don’t want to say envy — but not be cool.
“We were just like, man, we both can play and when we both get our shot people are going to really take notice. So at the end of freshman year we just became really close.”
Now, Tabor said, he and Wilson watch film together and hang out away from the field.
Teammates joke that they can’t ever see one of the star cornerbacks without the other being right there as well.
“I mean, if you see me, you see him,” he said.
It’s that very scenario that has caused so many headaches for opposing quarterbacks, wide receivers and offensive coordinators.
Missouri’s Drew Lock came into the week as the SEC’s leading passer with 1,675 yards, 14 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Sure, those numbers were a bit skewed by two stat-stuffing performances against overmatched Eastern Michigan and Delaware State teams, but the Tigers also managed 376 yards through the air against Georgia.
On Saturday, they had just 98. More to the point, Lock finished 4-of-18 for 39 yards and those two pick-6s before backup Marvin Zanders passed for 59 yards once the game was well in hand.
And to get yet more specific, by halftime Lock had one more completion (3) than he had interceptions returned for touchdowns (2).
“We’re always happy to play against teams that throw the ball because that’s always the outcome,” Wilson said. “I mean, Kentucky, they like to throw the ball around and you saw how that went. And now Missouri. I mean, that’s just what we do.”
He has a point.
The Gators held Kentucky to 55 passing yards in 14 attempts (with 45 of that coming on one play). For what it’s worth, they also held North Texas to 66 passing yards, Vanderbilt to 118 passing yards and Massachusetts to 141. Only Tennessee (296 passing yards) has had its way with this Florida secondary and defense in general.
“Well, you know, here’s the great thing, when you’ve got two great corners like that, they’ve got to pick one side of the field, right?” McElwain said. “You know, I think it happened a little bit for us last year when people tried to throw at Jalen because they were afraid of Vernon, right? Now, it’s kind of that same way. Pick your poison.”