GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While the conversation so often steers back to the same old flaws that Florida has yet to fix on offense, halfway through the season the Gators can nonetheless feel good that they’ve answered one of their biggest questions on defense.
Freshman cornerback Marco Wilson has quietly turned in a tremendous freshman season while helping to fill the void left by older brother Quincy Wilson and fellow corner Jalen “Teez” Tabor, who both were picked in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Wilson doesn’t have an interception yet, but he’s tied for the team lead with 7 pass breakups (along with senior Duke Dawson) and continues to receive considerable praise from the advanced metrics community.
And from his teammates and head coach, for that matter.
“I saw it when he first came in,” Gators sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. “He was on a mission and we told him [to] keep that mentality and carry it into the season and keep playing football, and keep getting better every day because the season doesn’t stop after one game, so you got to keep playing and improving.”
By all metrics, he’s done so.
Entering last weekend, as Florida rested on bye, Pro Football Focus touted Wilson as the fourth-best freshman in the country at any position. PFF, which grades every player’s performance on every snap, had Wilson at an 85.2 season grade on a 1-100 scale. LSU corner Andraez Williams, Washington tight end Hunter Bryant and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor were the only freshmen graded higher.
The top freshmen, through 7 weeks of football.
Andraez Williams stays atop this list for another week. pic.twitter.com/uA6xf1t5kA
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 19, 2017
Wilson is tied for second among freshmen and tied for seventh overall in the conference with those 7 defended passes. And according to CFB Film Room, he has allowed just 4 catches and no touchdowns on 23 targets and is the only corner in the conference with at least 20 targets who has contested more than half of them.
Prior to Florida’s game with Texas A&M, CFB Film Room posted a tweet that also had Wilson ranked as the best SEC defensive back in coverage of passes at least 10 yards downfield (allowing only 2 completions on 16 such targets).
Here's a look at all SEC DBs who have been targeted at 10+ yards downfield at least 10 times this season, ranked by their comp% allowed pic.twitter.com/6k3LNfkwQV
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 13, 2017
“We tell him to just play ball and don’t worry about anything else, don’t get caught up in 1-on-1 situations,” Gardner said. “Just do your assignment, and then if the ball comes your way knock it down or keep it in your hands. But he’s been playing good.
“Like I said, he’s a young guy, but he’s been like an older guy. He’s focused on playing football and not the outside noise.”
Wilson might not be the biggest key to the Gators’ success this weekend. Georgia boasts the 10th-best rushing offense in the country (282.9 yards per game) and figures to lean on that attack.
But Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm leads the SEC in QBR at 170.42 while completing 62 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He’s capable of making big plays when called upon.
For this week and future weeks, though, Florida seems to have addressed its most glaring void on defense while laying a foundation for the future. Wilson and fellow freshman corner C.J. Henderson, who has two pick-6s this season, should only get better as a duo, while Dawson remains a steady veteran presence for the rest of this campaign.
Marco Wilson and Duke Dawson: shutting down opponents like Gators students shut down Richard Spencer pic.twitter.com/Wb2jwrbh21
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 20, 2017
That was the hope when Florida brought in six freshmen defensive backs in its 2017 recruiting class, and many projected then that Wilson might slide right in as a successor to his successful older brother.
Seeing it actually happen, though, has been one of most encouraging signs this fall for the Gators.
“I think he’s really a great student of the game and does a really good job in his preparation. Obviously is very talented. And I’m sure seeing what Quincy did, wanting to take over that legacy is something that’s really good,” coach Jim McElwain said. “His confidence as a player is up there with any freshman I’ve ever been around.”