GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It was just last week that safety Marcell Harris was holding court with reporters at SEC Media Days, talking about what it means to now be one of the faces of Florida’s defense, the Gators’ top returning tackler primed to build on a breakout season.
“Now I feel like I’m … I don’t know, you’ll have to wait and see,” he teased of his plans for the upcoming season.
Now those goals have been wiped away, at least for now, by the news Thursday that Harris will miss the 2017 season after tearing the Achilles tendon in his right ankle.
The team announced the season-ending injury along with a quote from coach Jim McElwain, who said “As a coach this is one of the hardest things you are faced with.”
It’s a cruel blow for Harris, a fifth-year senior who had changed the narrative of his career from underperforming former highly-touted recruit to key cog on one of the top defenses in the country last year to veteran defensive leader heading into his final season.
He made what seemed like a wise choice to return for his last year rather than taking what he could get at the next level and seemed poised to improve his draft stock with a full fall in the spotlight.
Harris can petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt and a potential sixth year of eligibility, but it’s unknown if he’ll choose to do so.
While he recovers, meanwhile, the Florida defense now must regroup.
The unit had already been hit hard with veteran departures. Add Harris to the list and consider that the Gators are now replacing both starting cornerbacks, their top two safeties, both veteran starting linebackers, their two best defensive tackles and a veteran defensive end.
Consider now that Florida’s top returning tackler is sophomore linebacker David Reese (49 tackles).
So how do the Gators adjust? Let’s take a look:
What to do with Chauncey Gardner Jr.?
Gardner was set to be a focal point on the defense as a sophomore one way or another, but his position had not yet been finalized.
The reigning Outback Bowl MVP spent the spring at cornerback, presumably in large part because the Gators had so few options at that position while waiting for their large freshman class of DBs to arrive this summer.
It would make the most sense to now slot Gardner back at safety, where he finished last season as a starter alongside Harris after both Marcus Maye and Nick Washington went down with injuries.
He made 17 tackles and 3 interceptions over the final three games in that role and could slide right in opposite Washington to give the Gators stability at the safety spot.
Where’s the depth?
Sophomore Jeawon Taylor, who played primarily on special teams last season, and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton, who missed last season due to injury, have to take the next step and become key rotational guys now.
Both possess plenty of upside and intrigue and will get their chance to perform this fall.
Behind them, two of the Gators’ six incoming freshmen defensive backs project as safeties.
Donovan Stiner, a 3-star recruit from Houston, joins the Gators as a true safety while Shawn Davis, a 3-star recruit from Miami listed as a cornerback by the recruiting sites, has indicated he will play safety in Gainesville as well.
Depth becomes an issue in general for the secondary, though. If Gardner settles in at safety as expected, the Gators are especially thin at cornerback. More on that in a minute.
Speaking of the freshmen …
The Gators already knew they would have to get immediate production from their talented class of six freshmen defensive backs.
The urgency is even greater now.
Along with Stiner and Davis, the Gators bring in 4-star cornerbacks C.J. Henderson, Brad Stewart, Marco Wilson and 3-star corner Brian Edwards.
It is now even more likely that one of those first three guys opens the season as a starter opposite senior Duke Dawson.
Wilson, the younger brother of former star cornerback and 2017 second-round NFL Draft pick Quincy Wilson, is a polished prospect. Henderson, rated the No. 15 cornerback in the 2017 signing class by the 247Sports composite, is the highest-ranked of Florida’s freshman DBs. And Stewart, slotted at No. 20 on that list, isn’t far behind.
There was already a sense that Florida would lean more toward playing three linebackers over utilizing a nickelback as part of its base defense, and that would make even more sense now with the loss Harris and the aforementioned ripple effects. For what it’s worth, though, McElwain had mentioned Stewart as a guy he wanted to give a look to in that nickel role.
It was clear on National Signing Day that those freshmen DBs would be important for the Gators right away, and that’s even more apparent now as the rest of the team’s cornerback depth consists of unproven redshirt-freshman McArthur Burnett and little-used senior Joseph Putu.
However it shakes out, the second biggest storyline of preseason camp — behind the quarterbacks — now becomes even more interesting as those freshmen compete to see who can make an immediate impact in 2017.