GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With the season opener two weeks from Saturday, the competition for playing time remains fluid in Florida’s secondary.
That’s fine with defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, as the Gators search to fill the void left by the loss of four experienced players from a year ago (Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs).
"We’ve had great competition," Durkin told reporters Thursday. "Competition makes everyone better. They’re battling really good. They’ve all had days where you could say this guy is better than the other. The good news is they’re all competing and playing well. They’re going to help us."
When camp opened, the only starting position locked down belonged to sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. Though Hargreaves missed time due to a bone bruise on his left knee, he is back at practice in a non-contact jersey as a precautionary measure.
"He’s got plenty of time to get himself ready," Durkin said.
Meanwhile, head coach Will Muschamp essentially named sophomore Keanu Neal a starter at safety earlier this week, calling Neal "our best safety." Neal has played well in camp, also catching Durkin’s attention.
"He plays really fast," said Durkin, entering his second season as Florida’s defensive coordinator. "He plays at a high level at all times when he’s on the practice field. He is a very physical guy. He can cover and he plays the game with speed."
Under Muschamp, the UF defense has played in a nickel package about 75 percent of snaps, meaning depth and versatility are placed at a premium in the secondary.
That same approach holds true in 2014. The Gators coaching staff is taking a long look at a number of players, including true freshmen Jalen Tabor, J.C. Jackson, Duke Dawson, Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter.
Tabor, who made an athletic interception in Thursday morning’s practice, and Dawson arrived as early enrollees in January. Tabor is a cornerback and Dawson can play corner or safety. Dawson has missed time this week with a shoulder injury but made a good impression in the spring.
"Duke is definitely in the mix and we’re counting on him to play and contribute this year," Durkin said. "He is very versatile."
As for Tabor, the most highly touted of the newcomers, Muschamp is pushing him to be more consistent early in camp.
"He’s very coachable because he’s a guy able to listen, learn and move to the next snap," Muschamp said. "And if he can’t handle me yelling, he’s not going to handle 90,000 people, I can assure you that. But he’s a guy, we need some separation at corner."
And don’t forget Jackson, arguably the most impressive of the newcomers from a physical standpoint. A two-way star at Immokalee High, Jackson has stood out in camp despite performing in a non-contact jersey due to a shoulder issue from high school.
Looking past the freshmen, a strong candidate to start or play significant snaps opposite Hargreaves at cornerback is junior Brian Poole, who also has experience at nickel.
At safety, veterans Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman figure into the plans, and redshirt freshmen Nick Washington and Marcell Harris have shown improvement.
Neal is confident that regardless of how the position battles play out, the secondary is stocked with the talent to succeed.
"We’re all athletic," said Neal, a former standout at South Sumter High in Bushnell. "It’s just understanding the playbook and understanding what to do on the back end. We’re doing that, and I think we’re heading in the right direction."
Durkin agrees. The Gators still have two scrimmages remaining during camp and Durkin expects some clarity afterward.
"We’re trying a bunch of different things. That’s what training camp is for," Durkin said. "I feel good about our options back there. Look at the history here, we’ve played true freshmen in the back end about every year. We recruit those type of guys and a lot of our guys leave as juniors. That happens. We’ll be fine."