GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As he gets his first chance to work with his new personnel, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is quickly evaluating who can do what and how the pieces best fit together.
That’s a fluid, ongoing process, but one determination he’s already made through three spring practices is that junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s versatility lends itself well to the nickel role. And that, he feels, allows the Gators to get their best combination of talent on the field together.
“Chauncey at the nickel position is a guy that we moved there from safety. He is a leader and he really works hard and is conscientious,” Grantham said Tuesday after practice. “You need a guy that has some stoutness and play strength. He can cover in the slot. He’s got to set the edge on the bubbles, which is more like a safety. He’s a good blitzer coming off the edge.
“I mean, he does multiple things. I mean, he could play corner for us, but it’s a matter of getting our best 11 players on the field, it’s a matter of putting him at nickel.”
Grantham added that with the prevalence of three-wide offenses he expects to be in nickel “90 percent of the time.”
Gardner-Johnson, who was recruited as a cornerback, has been a starting safety for Florida since the final three games of his freshman season, totaling 5 career interceptions. Last season, he finished second on the team with 58 tackles, adding 2 picks, 7 pass break-ups, 6 tackles for loss and a sack.
Meanwhile, the Gators have their starting cornerbacks established in sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson, who handled those spots as freshmen with then-senior Duke Dawson usually working in the nickel role.
Florida coach Dan Mullen had high praise for Wilson and Henderson while speaking with reporters on Wednesday.
“They are two premier corners,” he said. “That gives you flexibility to do a lot. You can go play man coverage and they can go eliminate people. That gives you a lot of flexibility defensively to have some fun, and that allows Todd to do some more and be even more creative. I think they’re guys that really are very talented cover corners. Both also play physical, which you want, so then you can mix things up with them, whether it’s them blitzing, whether it’s playing man coverage or being physical players in zone, they’re two excellent corners.”
Said Grantham: “I think that when you have guys that have their ability to change directions, transition, cover guys, play tight coverage, they do two things. One, the tighter the coverage, the more accurate the quarterback has to be with the ball. The tighter you are to the guy, the better chance you have to get your hands on the ball. And these guys have size, which allows you in the possession downs — third downs — and in the red zone to play tighter to guys and be more physical and don’t get pushed off at the sticks.”
So that leaves the safety spot as a key competition for the spring and beyond.
Junior Jeawon Taylor, sophomores Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner and freshman early enrollee Amari Burney are among the players getting work there. Redshirt sophomore Quincy Lenton, who has yet to play through two years while dealing with injuries, also is trying to prove himself.
Grantham noted Burney could end up at outside linebacker, but he’s working at safety based on need and available personnel.
Asked who on the defense has impressed him, Grantham rattled off Gardner-Johnson, inside linebacker David Reese, defensive end/outside linebacker CeCe Jefferson — “[He] has embraced playing outside backer for us and what we are trying to do with him” — and defensive end Jabari Zuniga as another versatile player he can slide to outside linebacker.
“I am encouraged about where we are moving, but we’ve got to continue and develop,” Grantham said. “The thing about it is you think you have 15 days, but in reality you only have 30 hours on the field in spring and we’re in Day 3 so six of those hours are gone. So now we have 24 hours left on the field the remainder of spring to try to get the things in and also evaluate guys and see where they can stack up as far as getting us reps.”