GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Few position groups have more to prove for Florida in 2018 than the safeties, and it’s clear listening to them talk this spring that, to a man, they share that sentiment.
The unit returns limited experience, but it will need to mature in a hurry given the responsibilities put on the position by the new coaching staff.
But that’s also what has the group so excited for the coming season.
“Very aggressive. We’re going to be coming on a lot more blitzes. We’re going to be in the run game a lot. We’re going to be real aggressive,” junior Jeawon Taylor said. “It’s very fun. We know we’re not going to be sitting back. We’re going to be in the game.”
Taylor is the most experienced of the young lot, improving as last season went along before a shoulder injury cost him the final game. He finished with 34 tackles and an interception. He had a four-game stretch with 4 tackles and the pick against Texas A&M, 7 tackles against Georgia, and 9 stops against both Missouri and South Carolina.
He’s still recovering from an injury to his right shoulder and has been in a red jersey all spring while being limited to no-contact work. But Taylor expects to be fully unleashed in fall camp.
And with the collective youth at safety, he intends to play a bigger role than ever.
“I feel like I’m the vocal leader, the general. I put everybody in place,” Taylor said. “… It’s my time to step up and make sure the young guys know what they’re doing at any aspect of the game.”
Sophomore Shawn Davis has been working behind him and rotating in with the first team at times at that strong safety spot, which he feels is a better fit for his skill set than how he was used a year ago.
“I’m playing more in the box. I’m more of a very aggressive safety than I was last year,” Davis said. “I just got used to the game and the speed of it, so I feel like I’m going to do way better this year.”
Fans may remember Davis creating a good bit of preseason buzz last year and playing in key moments in the opener against Michigan. The Wolverines hit a long touchdown pass against Florida early in that game and many felt that Davis, who was left trailing the receiver after the catch, was at fault for the coverage bust. It was hard to ever get a clear answer from the Florida coaches about that play, but Davis set the record straight this week.
“It wasn’t my assignment. It was just a bad call. It wasn’t my assignment,” he said. “Yeah, I got the blame for it so I just took it for the team.”
Still, his playing time would dip from there and he finished with just 11 tackles last season. He said the experience caused him to reassess his goals from thinking big picture and dreams of the NFL to a more myopic approach on taking the next step in his development.
“My goals are focused on the now,” he said.
At the free safety spot, meanwhile, sophomores Brad Stewart and Donovan Stiner are looking to prove themselves after quiet freshman seasons.
Stewart totaled 13 tackles and 1 pick while Stiner finished with 9 tackles.
Stewart has been working with the first team in most portions of practice open to reporters, but Stiner has rotated in with the 1s at other times. Stewart was the first to say that he doesn’t feel he’s solidified any spot on the depth chart.
“No, not yet. Still got summer to go,” he said.
“It’s all competition,” he noted. “They just put us with the 1s, but we all get evaluated the same whether it’s Stiner running with the 2s or we swapping. We all get evaluated the same. All of us are just coming out and competing every day.”
Stewart was the second-highest rated of Florida’s six defensive back signees in the Class of 2017, behind cornerback C.J. Henderson. He too came in as a corner before being moved to safety by the previous coaching staff.
He said he was fine with the position switch and feels he’s settling in after a year in the program, learning the dedication he has to put into the film room and being sound in the communication that’s demanded from the safety position.
He also likes the free safety role as it fits in new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense. While Taylor noted how Stewart can be a punishing tackler when needed, especially for a converted corner, Stewart doesn’t expect to be asked to defend the run much.
“I think our safety in this system that we have now is more like a corner, our free safety, so I get to cover in the slot a little bit more,” Stewart said. “I’m a little bit more athletic so I think this system is more to my advantage.”
Stiner was asked to play nickel last season, and he also feels like he’s in a role more suited to his strengths.
“Last year I was at nickel a lot of the time. I’m at free, I’m focusing on that, I’m adjusting well to the new coaching staff. I like them. Just working,” Stiner said, while noting that he thinks Grantham’s defense will find a way to take advantage of everything he can do.
“Coach Grantham likes to play people everywhere. I feel like I’m versatile so I can move around and blitz and all type of stuff like that. We run to the ball and that’s what I do.”
Highly touted freshman Amari Burney and redshirt sophomore Quincy Lenton also have been working with the safeties this spring. Burney, in particular, remains a name to watch given his impressive combination of size and speed, which could lend itself to a move to linebacker at some point.
However it shakes out at safety, though, Florida will be asking a lot from a group of young players that hasn’t gotten to show much on Saturdays yet.
With a veteran defensive line, proven young cornerbacks, a dynamic playmaker now at nickel in former safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and a three-year starting inside linebacker in David Reese, the Gators have some proven pieces around which to build this defense.
But the play of the safeties could be pivotal in determining just how good that D can be in 2018.
“We’re all good at what we do,” Taylor said.
Soon enough, they’ll get their chance to show it.
“I think there’s a lot more I have to prove so I feel like this should be a good year for me, a year for our team to bounce back and a year for us to claim DBU again,” Stewart said.