GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The pass sailed over a Texas A&M wide receiver and straight toward a group of Florida defenders.
As two Florida players convened on the ball, it landed straight in Jeawon Taylor’s hands for the sophomore’s first career interception in his first career start.
After Taylor spun around and fell to the ground, he was immediately met by a slew of teammates ready to celebrate.
Freshman Marco Wilson chest-bumped Taylor as he got up from the ground. Duke Dawson jumped and pumped his fist. Kylan Johnson engulfed Taylor with a hug as he pointed toward the sky.
Eventually, Taylor was swarmed on the Florida sideline by the rest of the defense.
“He was just excited,” Johnson said. “It built some confidence in him. It was good to see.”
Florida needs that level of confidence and as many able bodies as possible to produce in the secondary.
Defensive back depth has been a concern for the Gators all season. With fifth-year senior Marcell Harris suffering a season-ending torn Achilles tendon prior to fall camp and fellow fifth-year senior Nick Washington nursing a right shoulder injury, the Gators’ only experienced safety with sustained reps on defense was sophomore Chauncey Gardner.
Taylor earned the nod to start on Saturday and finished the game with a career-high 4 tackles and that second-quarter interception.
“I was confident in him from the jump. It was just ‘you’ve got to wait your turn,’ ” Gardner said. “When his turn was presented to him, he did what he had to do.”
And while a one-game sample size isn’t enough to make any bold predictions about Taylor’s future just yet, it did provide a glimpse of how far Taylor has come.
A former 3-star prospect and the No. 16 safety in the 2016 recruiting class according to the 247Sports Composite, Taylor spent his first season on special teams while biding his time behind a veteran group of safeties that included second-round draft pick Marcus Maye, Harris and Washington.
He finished his freshman year with 7 tackles in 10 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the first quarter against Florida State. The injury ultimately forced Taylor to sit out spring camp as well.
Now, six weeks into his sophomore year, Taylor is beginning to work his way into more playing time.
He once again was relied on heavily on special teams and came in on defense for the occasional play when starters needed a breather.
And then came Saturday, his first chance to break out.
“Jeawon’s been playing good,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “He’s been doing a good job on special teams. Starting to learn how to study it. We’ve got some guys that have got to learn that it’s not all about them. It’s a team game and we’ve got some guys growing up and doing that.”
To his teammates, they knew he had the playbook and the game plan locked down. To them, Taylor’s biggest setback was his ability to be vocal on the field, a problem they say he has remedied over the past few weeks in practice.
“[It’s] just [him] communicating more,” Dawson said. “You can’t be silent at safety. The safety’s the quarterback of the defense.”
Gardner added: “Just knowing that he’s got to play in front of 90,000, he did what he had to do.”
And now that Taylor has gotten a taste of an expanded role, his teammates are confident he’ll only continue to get better down the stretch this season.
“I honestly am kind of surprised he kind of took this long to start getting more time in,” wide receiver Dre Massey said. “But I think his time is coming and it’s definitely going to pay off.”