Florida's secondary boasts talent, experience, confidence
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Vernon Hargreaves III provided a little confusion last week, and not just for Florida's quarterbacks.
When asked about Hargreaves returning an interception for a touchdown in practice, several teammates offered the same response:
The junior cornerback turned picks into points on consecutive days in camp. It was the latest example of what former Florida coach Will Muschamp left behind in Gainesville: arguably the nation's deepest and most talented secondary.
The unit is the cornerstone of what's expected to be one of the Southeastern Conference's top defenses, which could be beneficial to a revamped offense that's trying to find its way under new coach Jim McElwain.
''We've had pretty good secondaries, but I think this one can really be special,'' cornerback Brian Poole said. ''We've got all the pieces.''
It starts with Hargreaves, a two-time, all-SEC first team selection who has the ability to shadow the opponent's best receiver and essentially shut down one side of the field. He has started 22 consecutive games, recording 88 tackles, 24 pass breakups and six interceptions.
And like most shutdown cornerbacks, he doesn't lack confidence.
''I'm the best corner in college football, without a doubt,'' Hargreaves said at SEC Media Days last month.
He's also likely to get plenty of attention - at least in film rooms. More often than not, though, teams will avoid throwing Hargreaves' way on the field, even if he's locked on each opponent's top receiver.
''I'm not sure you can put a true value on a guy who I'll argue is the best defensive player and obviously best defensive back in the country,'' McElwain said. ''He's a guy that can lock you down. He's a guy that enjoys competing. I think one of the values that he truly brings is his love of playing the game of football, competing, even in practice, because what that does is then elevate those people around you.
''The true great players, the really great, great players, they enjoy the competition no matter whether it's Tiddlywinks or one-on-one drills, or third down, or red area or whatever it is during practice. They aren't taking a day off. They aren't taking a practice off. They aren't taking a rep off. He's a guy that truly does that, and I'm sure glad he's here.''
The guys around Hargreaves can hold their own, too.
Fellow cornerback Jalen Tabor started five games as a freshman last season, finishing with 31 tackles, eight pass breakups, two sacks and an interception. Junior safeties Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal, meanwhile, have the size to play in the box and the range to work in single-high formations.
The four starters spent much of last season together, so all the communication nuances have been ironed out.
Learning a new defense wasn't a stretch, either. After all, new coordinator Geoff Collins kept much of Muschamp's system intact.
''If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?'' Neal said. ''It wasn't broke.''
The Gators ranked 41st nationally in passing defense last year, giving up 213.6 yards a game through the air, although the statistics would have been better without a 449-yard outing at Alabama in September.
They credit Muschamp and former secondary coach Travaris Robinson for recruiting a talented group and making them better. The unit is deep, too. Poole, Quincy Wilson, Duke Dawson, Nick Washington and Marcell Harris probably could start at plenty of other schools.
''We're at least four to five corners and at least four to five safeties deep,'' Maye said. ''Any of those guys could get in there and be as comfortable as the first guy in there. I don't think too many programs can say that. That kind of depth helps, especially when someone leaves to go to the next level. The next guy that steps in has the experience and is just as talented as that first guy.''
Florida has sent a number of defensive backs to the NFL in recent years, including safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans and cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.
Several more could join them next year, with Hargreaves leading the way.
''I guess ever since you start playing football you want to be in my position,'' Hargreaves said. ''You want to be that guy that everybody is talking about, and I guess I'm sort of here now. So let's just embrace it and just have fun with it.''