JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida football coach Jim McElwain likes to meet 1-on-1 with each of his players for about 20 to 25 minutes a few times a year.
Those sit-downs are valuable opportunities not only to talk about a player’s performance on the field and what he needs to work on, but also to go deeper, further the player-coach relationship and maybe learn something in the process.
“I always ask them if there’s a guy on the team that you’d want in that foxhole with you,” McElwain said. “And Marcell [Harris], Nick [Washington] are both names that came up numerous times. So what that tells you is there’s a common thread there. [Marcell is] a guy that obviously our team trusts, a guy that proves it on the practice field, in the weight room, in the classroom. He’s done a great job. And you know what, he’s a guy that’s got to take over that leadership role. It’s that time. It’s that time for him to go ahead and do that.”
McElwain was speaking Tuesday evening before his visit with the Gator Club of Jacksonville, but he had touched on this point a day earlier on the SEC spring teleconference as well.
With Florida’s linebackers undergoing an official changing of the guard from NFL draft picks Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone to a collection of sophomores, McElwain wants to see his veteran safeties take on the vocal and by-example leadership roles on the defense.
While Davis and Anzalone were mostly out with injuries down the stretch last season, thrusting then-freshmen David Reese, Vosean Joseph and then-redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson into larger roles, the veteran playmakers maintained a presence on the sideline. They would offer input and advice between series as best they could.
Now Davis is with the Detroit Lions and Anzalone is with the New Orleans Saints.
The Gators are retooling much of their defense after eight defensive players in all were drafted or offered free-agent tryouts by NFL teams.
The coaches still have questions to answer and positions to sort out, but McElwain is hoping Harris and Washington, a pair of fifth-year seniors, can lead that rebuild by filling the leadership void.
“I think that’s definitely kind of shifted to our safety position from a leadership standpoint and the communication from there to help everybody on our defense,” McElwain said. “I’m excited for that shift.”
Harris, in particular, has given McElwain and Gators fans reasons to be excited after a breakthrough 2016 season.
After entering his fourth year in the program with 29 career tackles on his resume, Harris went on to lead Florida with 73 total tackles last season. He also racked up 4 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble.
It was a pivotal year for a player with plenty to prove, and now he becomes one of the faces of the defense.
“He’s a vicious hitter. I love that, I’d never take that away from him. And yet sometimes he gets so focused on the big hit and not maybe what he had to do in some of the other things,” McElwain said of the growth he saw in Harris last season. “His communication, and with him and Nick working together back there, that’s something that’s really been good for us with having now Duke [Dawson] and Chauncey [Gardner] working some at the corners.”
The Gators still could opt to move Gardner to safety, where he closed last season. They have six freshmen defensive backs arriving this summer to evaluate and see where all the pieces fit best.
But with former standout safety Marcus Maye off to the NFL, the opportunity is there for Washington to further assert himself as well.
He started to emerge as a redshirt sophomore and then played in 10 games last fall while finishing with 45 tackles and an interception before going down with injury.
“[He] is going to be a huge part of what we do, especially as a guy in that secondary with some of that youth that’s going to be in there,” McElwain said. “He brings stability, he brings the communication skills and, obviously, he’s a playmaker as well. He’s a guy that has played a ton for us since we’ve been there.”