GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Aside from the unrelenting spotlight on the quarterbacks, the position group to watch this August for Florida will be the defensive backs with six freshmen set to join the mix in camp.
As the Gators sort out the pieces to that puzzle, evaluating which of the newcomers might be ready to complement or challenge the veterans at certain spots, the nickel position will be of particular interest.
Florida relied heavily on impact defensive backs including Brian Poole and Duke Dawson at that nickel spot the past two seasons. With Dawson moving to cornerback in 2017, the Gators used a lot of three-linebacker sets during spring practice rather than deploying a fifth defensive back.
That could simply be because secondary depth is thin until those freshmen arrive, or because the Gators have an intriguing collection of linebackers pushing to get on the field.
Florida coach Jim McElwain discussed that topic during his spring speaking tour stop in Clearwater, Fla., last week. While he didn’t tip his hand, McElwain did reiterate that the versatile abilities of linebackers Kylan Johnson and Jeremiah Moon give the Gators some more options in that hybrid role.
“The flexibility of that nickel spot as teams get in and out of different personnel groups and the speed at which they play, that’s something that we’ve really kind of focused on. With both KC [Johnson] and Moon kind of handling that a little bit, you know, it will be interesting to see,” McElwain said. “A lot of it has to do with the personnel that you’re going to face, and obviously we’ve got Duke that can always kick in there and Chauncey [Gardner] as well that have played in that nickel spot. But with that, I’m really happy with those young linebackers.”
While the Gators were stretched thin at linebacker last season because of injuries, they should have plenty of competition there this summer.
Sophomore David Reese returns as the starting middle linebacker while fellow sophomore Vosean Joseph will be pushing for a larger role in 2017 along with Johnson, a redshirt sophomore who started the final five games last fall, and Moon, a high-upside 4-star recruit who redshirted because of a thumb injury.
It stands to reason that depth and the versatility of Johnson, a former safety, and Moon, a rangy 6-foot-4 linebacker with the ability to drop into coverage, could give the Gators more confidence and incentive to go with three linebackers more often.
“We knew that when we signed KC, that here’s a big safety that we knew may grow into that kind of player. He was kind of thrown in the fire because of injuries to play a little more inside stuff than maybe we anticipated, but boy, he really played well when he was in there,” McElwain said.
Asked if new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has any different views or preferences than predecessor Geoff Collins on the use of three linebackers over a base nickel look, McElwain didn’t give a direct answer.
If the Gators opt for a fifth defensive back more often, it’s yet to be seen where Gardner settles in after closing last season at safety and working this spring at cornerback. Or what those newcomers show this summer as they push for playing time. Again, there are pieces to sort out.
McElwain noted that incoming freshman Brad Stewart, a 4-star cornerback out of New Orleans, will likely “be one of those guys tested at nickel early.”
As he also mentioned, the opposing team’s offensive personnel and scheme will dictate the Gators’ defensive direction as well.
But it appears Shannon and staff will at least have options with that defensive alignment.
“The flexibility of that position, especially as teams create personnel matchups and then go fast, even with big personnel and then maybe spread the formation on the very next play, the ability of that person to be able to do both — be inside the box or be a space player — is something we’ve tried to get to,” McElwain said.