GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On more than one occasion since he became Florida’s head coach, Will Muschamp has made it clear he has about as much use for the star system created by recruiting services as a linebacker that doesn’t like to get his jersey dirty.
He prefers the eyeball test and developing a relationship with potential recruits.
Still, four games into the college career of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, even Muschamp might say Hargreaves deserved those five stars coming out of Wharton High in Tampa.
Hargreaves is tied for the SEC lead with three interceptions and has epitomized what coaches often refer to as a “lockdown corner.” Teams can throw his way, but don’t expect a high completion rate.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who will bring the Razorbacks into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night, has seen enough of Hargreaves on film to understand what the fuss is about.
“He’s everything you want in the position,” Bielema said Wednesday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference. “He’s very confident, very aggressive.”
Former Gators cornerback Larry Kennedy was ranked the nation’s top defensive back coming out of Sarasota Riverview in 1990. Kennedy originally signed with Ohio State but failed to qualify academically. After a year away from football, Kennedy improved his test scores, returned home to Florida and signed with the Gators.
Kennedy quickly made his way onto the field like Hargreaves has. He took over on the third play in the 1991 season opener against San Jose State and became the first true freshman to start at cornerback for the Gators when he started the next game, a 35-0 home win over Alabama.
Kennedy started every game the rest of his career and his 44-yard interception return for a touchdown his freshman sealed a win over Tennessee that remains one of the loudest moments in Florida Field history.
Kennedy, now 42 and living in Charlotte, N.C., as a regional sales rep for Riddell, remains close to the game. He runs the Charlotte Metro Youth Football League and works with the U.S. Army All-America Game.
He watched Hargreaves earn MVP honors at the Under-Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field in January and is not surprised the way Hargreaves has started his UF career.
“I heard the hype and wanted to see what it was all about,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes you can be a phenom, but it doesn’t transition over because (cornerback) is such a tough position to play — but he has transitioned.”
Yes he has.
In Florida’s 24-7 win at Kentucky on Saturday, Hargreaves twisted and snatched a Maxwell Smith pass from the air in the corner of the end zone for his third interception. As he pulled the ball from the air, Hargreaves made sure to stay in-bounds to squelch Kentucky’s final bid at a comeback.
Teammate Jaylen Watkins, who is considered a fine defensive back himself, admits not many guys can make that play look so easy.
“That was a play on the ball that I haven’t seen in a while,” Watkins said. “He leaped up. He has great ball skills. We saw that all through camp and he’s performing the way he performed in camp in the games. I’m pretty sure he’s going to get more playing time.”
That’s a safe bet.
Hargreaves has emerged while starter Marcus Roberson has fought through a knee injury suffered in the second game of the season at Miami. Roberson has missed the past two games. Hargreaves also benefited from the suspension of veteran corner Loucheiz Purifoy in the season opener.
According to video analysis done by Thomas Goldkamp, UF’s beat reporter for 247Sports.com, opponents have targeted Hargreaves 18 times through four games. The 5-11, 181-pound Hargreaves has allowed only four catches for 32 yards, adding three interceptions and four pass break-ups.
ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill projected Hargreaves to make a significant impact as a freshman after watching him throughout high school.
“Everybody uses that term ‘freak,'” Luginbill said earlier this year. “It’s hard to apply that term at corner, to have the maturity and the capacity to be a guy in run support, be a guy with competitive character, mental toughness. He can really do it all.”
Muschamp and Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have alluded to Hargreaves’ maturity as a primary reason for his success.
The son of longtime college assistant and University of Houston linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves Jr., Vernon III grew up around the game. His football IQ is not that of your average freshman.
“He’s a freshman, but he’s a veteran,” Durkin said. “At practice, he knows how to prepare. He’s one of those guys you know has been around the game. He responds really well. The stage is not too big for him. He goes out there and handles his business.”
As national college football recruiting analyst for FOX Sports/Scout.com, Chad Simmons forecast success for Hargreaves. In his final scouting report on Hargreaves after January’s Under-Armour Game, Simmons wrote:
Hargreaves is on track to be one of the top corners in 2013. He can cover on or off the line, he really explodes out of his breaks, and he can flip his hips with the best of them. There are not a lot of concerns about his game. He can improve his open field tackling, but other than that, he looks much like a college corner. He is very advanced in technique and he will contribute very early in his college career
Muschamp didn’t hesitate to play Hargreaves from the start of the season, even after Hargreaves missed a week of fall camp with a shoulder sprain.
“We’ll play freshmen when they’re ready,” Muschamp said. “And this guy is ready, that’s the bottom line.”
Hargreaves’ veteran teammates agree.
“He deserves to be playing a lot,” redshirt junior safety Cody Riggs said. “He’s a great football player.”
Kennedy saw that in person in January at the Under-Armour Game. He witnessed what the hype was about and left a true believer.
Nothing has changed four games into Hargreaves’ college career.
“He has the ball skills, athleticism, great technique for a young kid,” said Kennedy, who ranks second in school history with 39 pass break-ups. “One thing I can say we both can relate to: I was the No. 1 corner in the country; he was the No. 1 corner in the country. We both came in with swagger and wanted all that responsibility.
“Now you have to live with that for the rest of your career. He’s ahead of the game. If he can keep playing to his potential, he’s an All-American. If he does it for a couple more years, he’s playing at the next level.”
While not always the case, an ideal trajectory for a five-star recruit.