GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida is short on depth in the secondary this spring following the departure of three defensive backs from last season.
UF lost starting nickelback Brian Poole as well as a starter at cornerback and safety — juniors Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal, respectively.
The Gators won’t have trouble fielding five new defensive backs in the starting lineup, but they’ll be lacking numbers behind them and relying on true freshmen.
Fortunately for Florida coach Jim McElwain, it appears playing time won’t be an issue for his two mid-year enrollees at the position.
Granted, it’s the first week of practice, but McElwain likes what he sees from cornerbacks McArthur Burnett and Chauncey Gardner.
“The good thing I saw was it wasn’t too big for either one of them,” McElwain said. “They were out there competing and having fun. They weren’t a step slow. They were reacting, which really says these guys came here on a mission and that’s good to see.”
Burnett and Gardner, both first-team all-state selections as seniors, are overly confident in their abilities and have reputations as trash-talkers. Safety Nick Washington has already taken notice.
“Both of them honestly are very aggressive,” Washington said. “They can talk a little bit but they’re very aggressive players, fast and physical, flexible, agile. They’re good players.
Gardner, an Under Armour All-American, was one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in the last class and earned 2015 Florida Dairy Farmers Class 4A Player of the Year. Safety Marcus Maye said Gardner is lining up at multiple spots in the secondary.
“He’s doing good,” Maye said. “He’s real aggressive. You can put him out wide at corner or put him back deep at safety or in the slot. He’s very versatile. You can put him anywhere. He’s aggressive. He’s a great special teams guy.”
Like Gardner, Burnett played both ways in high school but shined at cornerback during his workout at Friday Night Lights. He reported to UF in January at 157 pounds, but has quickly put on weight.
“Actually 17 pounds, so there’s a case,” McElwain said. “That’s one of the great things the NCAA did, was allow these guys to be able to have access to actual meals. For guys like that who aren’t used to getting consistent eating habits, it’s not hard, right? So that’s good to see.”
Burnett and Gardner have yet to put on pads or delve into the playbook, but Washington is confident they can handle it.
“They’re holding their own,” Washington said. “They’re willing to learn, listening, just trying to take in everything, so they’re doing very well right now.”