GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Another talented player is emerging in Florida’s secondary.
The Gators have been churning out elite defensive backs over the past few years, and Duke Dawson appears to be next in line.
“Every day, I’m just really impressed with how he is excelling both at corner and at nickel,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “A guy that’s obviously going to play a ton.”
Dawson came up big for the Gators in Friday’s spring game, picking off two passes in impressive fashion.
On the first interception, he dropped back into zone coverage as the boundary cornerback and baited quarterback Feleipe Franks into throwing the running back wheel route, jumping his throw and returning it 20 yards. In the fourth quarter, Dawson reacted fast on a deflected pass and took it the house for a pick-six.
“It felt good,” Dawson said. “It’s always nice to get your hands on the ball.”
It’s nothing new for Dawson. He made an interception and returned it for a 36-yard touchdown in his first career game at Florida.
The 5-foot-10, 202-pounder made one start as a freshman in 10 games played and saw action in all 14 games last season. However, he finished with fewer tackles and no picks or pass deflections in 2015 as the defensive scheme change initially reduced his role.
“I don’t read into what I did last year,” said Dawson, whose playing time increased near the end of the season. “I move on. That’s behind me. As long as I work hard and do what the team asks me to do, I feel like it’s going to be a great season.”
The talent has always been there for Dawson, a versatile defensive back who can play all five positions. But he’s now settled in at nickelback and has been able to focus on that one spot.
“It’s not my physical game, it’s the mental part of the game,” Dawson said when asked how he’s improved. “Just knowing what you have to do and executing the defense. You can’t just learn in the film room. I feel like this spring I was more on the field and that helped.”
If his spring game is any indication, Dawson’s emergence will help Florida maintain its high level of play in the secondary this season.
“Duke’s been awesome,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. “He’s explosive, a very good player. He’s learning, gaining confidence. You can see him growing. I tell you, I’m excited about Duke’s progression.”