GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The hype and build-up were almost impossibly high for Florida’s cornerback duo this season.
And yet juniors Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor delivered on every bit of it.
While the Gators’ defense dealt with one significant injury setback after another, first through the defensive line, then onto the linebackers and eventually the safeties, Wilson and Tabor were foundation mainstays for a unit that ranks 6th nationally in total defense (298.6 yards per game allowed) and 10th in scoring defense (17.9 points per game).
All the while further legitimizing Florida’s claim to the “DBU” moniker.
The two cornerbacks combined for 7 interceptions and 2 touchdowns through the first six games before it became abundantly clear that any pass in their direction carried substantial risk.
The advanced numbers speak to those points even more clearly.
According to data provided by Pro Football Focus, Wilson led all Florida defensive players with 735 snaps played this season while Tabor ranked second with 649 despite serving a one-game suspension during the season opener.
Tabor carried the larger national profile into the season, but Wilson might have left an even greater impression with NFL talent evaluators. According to PFF, he allowed only 16 catches on 46 passes against his coverage for a 34.8 completion percentage. That ranks 1st in the SEC and 5th nationally. Overall, he allowed 227 passing yards and 1 touchdown against his coverage all season.
Tabor allowed 20 catches on 39 targets for a 51.3 completion percentage, 276 yards and 1 touchdown all season.
Tabor paired his 4 picks with 5 pass break-ups, officially, and scored a 43.3 on PFF’s “rating into coverage” metric to rank 3rd in the SEC and 16th nationally. Wilson finished with 3 interceptions and 6 pass break-ups and had a 31.7 rating on that stat to again lead the SEC and rank 6th nationally.
Gators coach Jim McElwain reiterated Tuesday that none of his juniors have officially declared for the NFL Draft yet, but the general consensus opinion is that both Tabor and Wilson are done in Gainesville.
They will leave with nothing more to prove while leaving with the Gators with a significant void in the secondary.
As we continue our position by position review of the 2016 Florida football season, here’s a further look at the cornerback position in reflection and moving forward.
Season grade — cornerbacks
I think we covered the reasons why, but to expand, Tabor/Wilson have commented that they feel they’re the best cornerback tandem in the country, and short of an exhaustive film breakdown of every other relevant duo it’s safe to say they at least made a compelling case.
Star of the group
Nope. Not going to choose between these two. We’ll be more daring in our selections the rest of the way, but Wilson/Tabor are co-stars in every regard.
The best summation of their impact this season, of course, came in that Week 7 win over Missouri when Tabor returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown only to have Wilson follow with his own 78-yard pick-6 2 minutes, 9 seconds later.
They’ve competed with each other in their own way since arriving on campus, but they bonded through their rise. Tabor explained their tight friendship at length back in October.
Wilson had more of a breakout season, emerging further from Tabor’s shadow into his own spotlight, but the Gators fed off both equally … and will miss both equally, assuming they declare for the draft as expected.
Looking at 2017
Speaking of which, how do the Gators rebuild this position yet again?
An incredible facet of Tabor and Wilson’s collective play this year is that they made it easy to forget that Florida lost another star corner — Vernon Hargreaves III — to the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Now the program has to find a way to pull off that feat again — times two.
It’s unfair to expect a seamless transition next fall, but Florida does have some promising pieces at cornerback.
Assuming Duke Dawson returns for his senior season, he should have the chance to significantly boost his draft stock while moving from the nickel role to cornerback. Going back to the PFF data, Dawson played 428 snaps this season and allowed 20 catches on 39 passes thrown his way for the same 51.3-percent completion rate as Tabor.
Overall, he yielded 253 yards and 2 touchdowns while tallying 7 pass break-ups, receiving just one penalty and missing only two tackles. He also had a pick-6 on his lone interception this fall, at Arkansas. And he actually received a higher season grade (87.2) from PFF than Tabor (79.8) or Wilson (72.9), but that number is based solely on how he performed his individual responsibilities on each snap and comparing such scores can be misleading.
Dawson would be well served to return for next season and see how he fares as a primary corner, though.
He could pair with Chauncey Gardner Jr., the big-personality, big-upside defensive back who saw significant action as a true freshman and moved into the starting lineup at safety as an injury replacement late in the season. Gardner, who was a 4-star recruit and the No. 4-ranked cornerback in the 2016 signing class, made an interception at Florida State and might be the fastest guy on the team.
The other name to throw into the mix, meanwhile, is a familiar one. Wilson — Marco Wilson.
Quincy’s younger brother, fresh off winning a Florida state championship with American Heritage last week, is a 4-star recruit and the No. 27-rated cornerback in the 2017 signing class. He’ll be eager to follow in his brother’s path and try to make an immediate impact with the Gators next fall.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports composite.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of our position-by-position review with a link to the first installment from Monday.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 17: Offensive line
Dec. 18: Running backs
Dec. 19: Tight ends
Dec. 20: Wide receivers
Dec. 21: Quarterbacks