Plenty was written this offseason about the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers, specifically over which school should be considered “DBU” (in
other more words, the best program in the nation at shutting down passing offenses and sending defensive backs to the NFL).
The Gators and Tigers certainly have their own cases about which program has been most successful historically, but Florida is hoping to prove that its secondary is not only head and shoulders above LSU but every other unit in the nation this season.
And no one is a bigger fan of the Gators’ defensive backs than their head coach.
“This is a true top-flight SEC defense. No doubt about it,” Jim McElwain said Monday. “The depth in that secondary, it actually runs three-deep at some positions. So it’s [been] outstanding at that position having a lot of really good players and players that can play at this level.”
Leader of Florida’s pack, so to speak, is junior All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who many believe is not only the best player at his position nationally but possibly the top defensive player overall. Again, McElwain has no problem holding the torch in that regard.
“I’m not sure you can put a true value on a guy who I’ll argue is the best defensive player in – and obviously the best defensive back in – the country,” he said of Hargreaves at the start of fall practice. “He’s a guy that can lock you down. He’s a guy who enjoys competing. One of the values he truly brings is his love of playing the game of football, competing even in practice. What that does is elevate the people around you, too. The truly great players enjoy the competition whether it’s tiddlywinks or one-on-one drills or third down or red area, whatever it is. They’re not taking a day off, not taking a practice off, not taking a day off. He’s one of those guys, and I’m really glad he’s here.”
Associated head coach and linebackers coach Randy Shannon has followed Hargreaves his entire life, referring to him as a “little jitterbug” in high school who has blossomed both physically as well as mentally.
But Hargreaves, a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award who led the Gators with 13 pass breakups in 2014, is the known quantity of Florida’s secondary.
Going through the rest of the unit proves the Gators truly have an embarrassment of riches with plenty of size and strength. Senior Brian Poole (team-high four interceptions, 10 pass breakups) and redshirt junior Marcus Maye (unit-high 62 tackles) are the veterans, and while each has flashed at times, the fourth-year players have an opportunity to make big gains in 2015.
“Maye has developed really well. He’s a leader out there,” said sophomore CB Quincy Wilson on Wednesday. “He really knows his plays and he’s doing well with getting guys lined up, calling what’s going to come before it happens. He’s been doing a good job.”
Wilson (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) and junior safety Keanu Neal (6-foot-1, 216 pounds) bring incredible athleticism along with size that will intimidate any opposing receiver. Sophomore Jalen Tabor has flashed lock down ability like Hargreaves and benefited from plenty of playing experience last season.
“We got a lot of range, and we’ve got a lot of depth. We got a lot of guys in the defensive back group so when someone goes down … we got a lot of guys to replace them,” said Neal, who admits he loves to hit but has been focusing on his coverage ability this offseason.
Redshirt sophomores Marcell Harris and Nick Washington were both highly recruited and have received positive reviews, but they are still developing. Nevertheless, they will absolutely be part of the secondary machine that could see eight or more players rotating on the unit this season.
Defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan told his players that there will be no first, second or third teams in his unit (well, at least until the depth chart comes out). Instead, he will simply play the best defensive backs and use the Gators’ depth to his advantage.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Callahan said of the secondary depth. “The great thing is the competition level. I think each guy brings his own little variety, his own uniqueness to this. … At the end of the day, we got a lot of playmakers. We got to put them in the position to make plays.”
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will use nickel as his base defense, putting more defensive backs on the field and relying on fewer linebackers. Callahan knows his unit is not lacking in talent or ability, so he is trying to coach them up by making them smarter.
“They’re obviously great players. They got great talent. But if you can sit there and make them a little bit smarter, it will make a good player even better. That’s what we like to do,” he said this spring.
“We like to be aggressive. We want to play fast. The whole thing is the ball is the issue. The ball is ours. When the ball is in the air, it should be ours. At the end of the day, when that thing is in the air, we should be acting like it’s ours. We’re going to do as [many] drills as the offensive wide receivers catching the ball; that thing has got to be ours.
“I like DBs that are smart; I don’t like dumb DBs. Anybody can just go play man: ‘You cover that cat.’ So you got to be sitting there and understand not only why we play this defense but where’s the weaknesses? So I want my DBs to be extremely smart. We got great players; let’s make them play fast. Let’s not try to overdo things. Sometimes we make this thing harder than it really is. Let’s get smart players playing fast.”
Despite all of the Gators’ struggles in 2014, the secondary shined, finishing 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.76). It was also the only Florida defensive unit not to be ravaged by graduation and early NFL entrants. The Gators return all of their significant players from a year ago.
Still, it is Hargreaves, not Florida’s entire secondary, earning the national attention. Hargreaves himself ensures the praise is shared when asked about his success, but Neal decided to be more matter of fact in explaining how the Gators can prove that “DBU” is located in Gainesville, Florida, not Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“We say we’re the best in the country; we got to do it,” he said.