GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For redshirt junior safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington, 2016 was a pivotal prove-it season of sorts.
And, for the most part, they did.
After playing limited roles last season, both Harris and Washington saw signifiant playing time this fall opposite stalwart safety Marcus Maye. And when the senior broke his arm in the win over South Carolina, Harris and Washington started together in the team’s biggest victory of the season at LSU.
As a result of the injuries at linebacker, Harris actually ranks as the Gators’ leading tackler with 64, along with three tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown.
That came on a 12-yard fumble return at Florida State.
Washington would end up missing the last two games with an ankle injury, but he tallied 45 total tackles to surpass his career total coming into the season. He also had a highlight moment, corralling a game-sealing interception at Vanderbilt after linebacker Jarrad Davis had deflected a pass in the final minute.
The Gators got a boost of stability at the safety spot last year when Maye decided to return for his senior season and they now at least have some comfort again in returning a pair of veterans at that position for 2017.
Unlike Maye last year, Harris and Washington really don’t have a decision to make. They still have plenty to prove as seniors, but 2016 was a step in the right direction.
Especially for Harris, who really seemed to settle in over the second half of the season.
Season grade — safeties
This group mostly did its part this year with the spotlight usually reserved for the cornerbacks, linebackers and at times defensive line.
Maye was having a really nice season beforethe injury, the emergence of Harris was a definite positive and Washington now enters 2017 with considerable experience.
The analysts at Pro Football Focus, who evaluate how each player performs their responsibilities on every snap, graded the Gators’ safeties as follows this season: Maye 84.3 (on 457 snaps), Harris 73.8 (501 snaps) and Washington 73.6 (417 snaps).
Star of the group
It was disappointing to see Maye’s final season end so abruptly with that injury, especially after he had made the decision to return this fall.
But Gators coach Jim McElwain has said several times that he believes Maye boosted his draft stock with his performance the first 8.5 games.
He finished with 50 total tackles, a sack, an interception and six pass break-ups.
Looking at 2017
For a glimpse at how Harris and Washington will fit together next season, look at the South Carolina game when they became the two primary safeties after Maye’s injury and the LSU game when they started together.
Harris had seven tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception against the Gamecocks, and Washington made a beautiful pass break-up (see photo above) to prevent a potential touchdown in the fourth quarter while finishing with five tackles and a quarterback hurry.
Against LSU, Harris totaled 11 tackles and Washington added six as the Gators delivered a gritty defensive performance that ended in a momentous goal-line stand.
Maybe the position won’t have the same star power it’s had in recent years for Florida with the likes of Keanu Neal and even the more understated Maye, but the Gators are going to be OK here.
As for safety depth in 2017 — after the way the 2016 season went, the importance of depth can’t be overstated — the Gators will have to put their faith in the development of Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton.
Taylor, a 3-star recruit out of Montgomery, Ala., saw some action this season while notching seven tackles.
Meanwhile, Lenton, a 3-star recruit out of Meridian, Miss., sustained a broken foot in preseason camp and never got an opportunity to contribute as a true freshman. His redshirt remains intact, giving him four years of eligibility still.
Chauncey Gardner Jr., who started at safety after Washington went down with his ankle injury, could be an option as well, though his ability to play cornerback and the Gators’ greater need there likely means he’ll be out of the mix at safety.
The Gators don’t presently have any safeties committed in the 2017 recruiting class, though that could change before National Signing Day.
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