Image Credit: UAA
In just a few weeks, nearly two handfuls of former Florida Gators will be selected in the 2016 NFL Draft and signed as undrafted free agents by professional teams. It will be a stark reminder how much talent left Florida this past season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, linebacker Antonio Morrison and safety Keanu Neal were not just great players, they were leaders for the Gators, guys that played key roles in Florida transitioning from Will Muschamp to head coach Jim McElwain.
Some of the names slotted to step up in the place of these four players are well known already: redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, junior CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, senior S Marcus Maye, redshirt senior LB Jarrad Davis and senior LB Alex Anzalone.
But as many saw last Friday during the 2016 Orange & Blue Debut, some names that McElwain and the coaching staff had praised throughout the spring look to be stepping up to the hype.
Junior CB Duke Dawson and redshirt junior S Marcell Harris are not exactly “young,” but neither has been a full-time starter for Florida. Dawson saw action on the Blue team, hauling in two interceptions of freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, one he returned 30 yards for a touchdown. Harris only registered a tackle in limited snaps, but he certainly appears ready to step in for Neal when the time comes.
“Every day, I just am really impressed with how [Dawson] is excelling both at corner and at nickel. He’s a guy that obviously is going to play a ton,” explained McElwain after the game. “I think Marcell Harris really had a good spring as well at safety. That secondary as a whole, that’s a good group of guys.”
Davis saw limited action Friday and Anzalone missed the game. Though Anzalone was active during spring practice, he remained non-contact during the 15 meetings as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury that cost him much of the 2015 season.
Though guys like senior Daniel McMillian and redshirt junior Matt Rolin should see an increase in snaps this season, McElwain has been especially impressed with freshman early enrollee David Reese, who had four tackles (one for lost yardage) on Friday. Florida’s linebacking depth remains an issue, but guys like Reese stepping up are key to ensuring the defense does not not take a step back.
“David Reese, for example, just got a ton of reps and really got better himself. Jarrad is as good a player as there is in the country, if not the best linebacker in the country. That guy proved it. I think with Alex being out really gave us an opportunity to give guys some valuable looks,” McElwain said of the unit. “They’ve gotten better. We’re adding a couple that will be in in August. It’s one of those positions where we need to continue to add depth.”
Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson, a Texas athlete who moved from safety to linebacker and is up to 228 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, is another player who will mitigate the Gators’ depth issues in the middle of the defense. Johnson is especially impressive because of his athleticism; even as he continues to learn the position, his innate ability is keeping him on the field, particularly when UF needs a coverage backer.
“I thought he made some really good plays on the ball and came up with some good tackles in the hole,” said McElwain of Johnson, who also intercepted Franks. “You see the size and speed there, and his ability to carry a couple seams with his secondary [experience] I think is really going to help us against a lot of spread teams. To have him back in there, I thought he did a heck of a job.”
Florida’s tremendous defensive performances continued from Urban Meyer to Muschamp and now to McElwain and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, but with so many big stars gone, it will be interesting to see whether the Gators can maintain their standing as one of the most feared defenses in the nation.