GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Corey Bell knows what he signed up for by coming to Florida as the new defensive backs coach.
The Gators had a top-20 pass defense in eight of the past nine seasons, one that finished 2016 as the second-best unit in the country.
Despite just two years of college coaching experience at Florida Atlantic, Bell didn’t hesitate to take a job that carries high expectations.
“I don’t have a problem with that at all. My background speaks for itself in terms of that,” said Bell, a former starting cornerback at South Carolina. “Every day is a challenge. … ‘OK, how can I get these guys better in terms of the next practice?’
“It always starts with me. I look in the mirror each and every day and I ask myself that question. I ask them to do the same thing. And then we’ll go from there. It’s just another challenge.”
It’s a challenge not only for Bell, but the players at his position. Florida will replace three secondary starters for the second consecutive year, and all six of the departed players will be in the NFL next season.
At most schools, that kind of turnover leads to an automatic drop-off in productivity. Florida defensive backs, however, won’t accept that narrative. Their mindset is to reload, not rebuild.
“They understand the tradition, no doubt,” Bell said. “It’s about being the best you can be each and every single day. That’s all we can ask. That’s all I can ask as a position coach.
“We don’t have to continue to remind them. They want to be great, is what I’m saying. They want to be great. They’re all in with that.”
Something old, something new
Even with the personnel changes, familiar faces still remain in the secondary. Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner are the presumptive starters at cornerback, while safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington return as redshirt seniors.
“Duke is really honing in on that corner piece, which he hadn’t been able to do,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said of Dawson, who started at nickel last season. “Marcell has done a great job with the communication piece. Him and Nick in the back end. Chauncey trying to lock down on that other corner spot after he ended up having to do a lot of nickel and safety (in 2016).
“Getting that depth and then obviously we have a slew of new guys coming in this summer that have got to learn fast. I know this, the defensive back spot at the University of Florida is a legacy position and those guys have got a lot to live up to.”
Florida signed five highly coveted cornerbacks and a safety in its 2016 recruiting class, and a few will likely contribute as true freshmen. Returning cornerbacks Joseph Putu and C.J. McWilliams could also factor into the mix.
Bell said Gators defensive backs this spring have “come a long way” in terms of adjusting to his coaching style and what he asks them to do. Incoming freshmen must make the same progress in fall camp, but he expects them to compete for playing time.
“The new guys, they’ll come in and have an opportunity to build some depth and hopefully those guys can get on the field right away,” Bell said. “It’s all about the learning curve for those guys, not being a liability in terms of that. We don’t foresee that, but if those guys can come in and pick up the system, it helps us and helps this team.
“There’s always going to be competition and that only can make you better and make you stronger as an individual. Those (current) guys should want that and embrace that. Same way with the guys coming in. They know there’s some guys here that have some experience, so they’re just looking forward to the opportunity.”