Gators hardly lacking for talent in secondary

Vernon Hargreaves III made a game-saving interception against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.  

Mike DiNovo

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — First-year Gators head coach Jim McElwain has real questions this spring as he evaluates what kind of team he inherited.

The offensive line is unusually thin, two young quarterbacks are battling for the starter’s job, and depth at linebacker isn’t where McElwain would prefer.

If concerns about those positions ever get McElwain frustrated at practice, at least he can walk over to where the secondary is doing drills and feel much better about the Gators.

"It’s fun to watch those guys play," McElwain said this week.

When former Florida coach Will Muschamp reminded everyone near the end of his tenure that the new coach would have some talent to work with, nowhere is that more true than in the secondary.

A former safety at Georgia, Muschamp and Travaris Robinson stocked up in the secondary the past four seasons, yielding an impressive group of players vying for playing time in 2015 under McElwain and new defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan.

The leader of the group is junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference who had three interceptions last season and tied for the SEC lead with 13 pass breakups.

Hargreaves (5-11, 198) is excellent in coverage and plays very physical despite being smaller than many of the receivers he is assigned to defend. At the cornerback position opposite Hargreaves, the Gators have young trio with a tremendous amount of upside: sophomores Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, and redshirt freshman J.C. Jackson.

Spring preview

Tabor (6-0, 192) and Wilson (6-1, 209) both played as true freshmen and Tabor earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team with 22 tackles, eight pass breakups and a one-handed interception at Vanderbilt that created buzz on social media.

Wilson got better as the season progressed and picked off his first career pass in the loss at FSU. That brings us to Jackson (5-10, 196), who is perhaps the most physically gifted of the young defensive backs.

Jackson missed last season after undergoing preseason shoulder surgery but is healthy and ready to contribute. Jackson’s athleticism is his biggest asset at this point in his young career and has created speculation that he could play on offense if the secondary is too crowded.

Senior Brian Poole (5-10, 208) led the team with four interceptions last season and can play cornerback or safety in nickel packages. Poole capped his junior season with a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown in Florida’s win over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

Sophomore Duke Dawson (5-11, 200) is another player who can play both corner and safety. Dawson became the first UF freshman to return an interception for a touchdown in his first career game when he had a 36-yard pick six in the season opener.

The Gators are not lacking for talent at safety, where redshirt junior Marcus Maye (6-0, 205) and junior Keanu Neal (6-1, 209) return. Maye finished third on the team with 62 tackles last season and Neal chipped in 45 tackles, three interceptions and a 49-yard fumble return.

Neal missed two games with an injury. However, he began to take on more of a leadership role as one of the Gators’ most intelligent and productive players.

Redshirt sophomores Marcell Harris (6-1, 208) and Nick Washington (6-0, 193) are two more young players in the mix. Harris is a safety and Washington has worked at safety and cornerback.

Pretty normal

Redshirt freshman Deiondre Porter (6-0, 176) arrived on campus a year ago as a talented quarterback from Tampa’s Jefferson High. He has added 11 pounds since last season and provides depth at cornerback as he continues to develop at the position.

The only loss from the secondary is Jabari Gorman, who finished fourth on the team last year with 58 tackles.

As McElwain evaluates his team this spring, the secondary won’t take as long as other positions.

"I am really impressed with the amount of talent they have collected at the position," McElwain said. "Those guys are really good players and they compete. I really like the way they take every down and every play and try to get better. They push each other.

"We’re going to have to rely on them a lot to make a lot of plays."