Short-handed Florida Gators look to Shawn Davis, freshmen to solidify secondary

By Michael Phillips
September 12, 2019
Short-handed Florida Gators look to Shawn Davis, freshmen to solidify secondary

Image Credit: Twitter / GatorsFB

Following an impressive 45-0 victory over Tennessee-Martin, the No. 9 Florida Gators are shifting their focus to the SEC opener at Kentucky. Unfortunately, Florida will not go into the game at full strength as it will be without junior athlete Kadarius Toney (shoulder) and likely junior cornerback C.J. Henderson (ankle), who is listed as doubtful for the game.

“It’ll be tough,” redshirt sophomore CB Marco Wilson said of not suiting up with Henderson on the other side of the field. “That’s my right-hand man. Not having him out there, it sucks, but it gives those young guys an opportunity to get in a real game against an SEC opponent, so that’ll be good for them, and I’m sure he’ll be out helping them all week and getting them prepared for the game.”

Henderson suffered a minor ankle sprain against the Skyhawks this past week, according to head coach Dan Mullen, who said he would not rush his star back onto the field until he is 100 percent. With Henderson sidelined, the Gators will look to their freshmen DBs in Kaiir Elam, Chester Kimbrough and Jaydon Hill to help fill the void. 

It’s a tough task to have to step up as a freshman regardless of position or opponent, but having it be in your first conference game on the road doesn’t make the task any easier.

However, Florida feels confident these freshmen are up to the challenge.

“I’m confident in all three of them,” Wilson said. “They know what they’re doing. They listen all the time during practice and meetings with coach Greg [Knox], and they try to do the little things right. It’s tough as a freshman. I already know how it is, but I’m very confident in those guys [that] they can go out there and play. They’re confident when they play, and they know their assignment.”

All three made their impact felt against UT-Martin as Hill and Kimbrough tied for the second on the team in tackles with four a piece and Elam nabbed an interception in the end zone to eliminate the only real scoring threat of the game.

The Wildcats are without a doubt a big step up in competition from the Skyhawks, but the Gators’ freshmen have some great role models they have been studying under since they stepped on campus. 

“I think that Marco and C.J. do a good job of showing those guys the ropes and how they prepare,” redshirt junior quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “It’s not easy when you first get to college to try and prepare for a game and all those other different things that are super challenging.

“I think they do a good job of setting an example and those guys just following. I think they’ll be very good, and I think C.J. and Marco will get them in the right place to be able to play every Saturday.”

Additionally, with junior safety Brad Stewart Jr. out the last two games serving a suspension and no timetable set as to when he will be back with his teammates, Florida has been in need of help in the back end of the secondary, too.

Fortunately, a veteran playmaker has found his confidence again and is stepping up to fill Stewart’s shoes.

Junior Shawn Davis previously mentioned that he lacked confidence last season, and as any defensive back knows, that is a necessary trait to be successful playing in the secondary. The position requires you to anticipate and move with conviction, and if you aren’t confident in yourself or what you’re doing, there’s no way you will make plays and get the job done. 

Luckily for the Gators, Davis has found his mojo and is playing like a changed man, something his teammates have certainly noticed in the early part of the 2019 season.

“Yeah you definitely can, I think you see that in the way they play,” said Wilson when asked whether confidence is visible on the field. “When someone is confident, they play with a lot more comfort, and they can make actions quicker, and they are just very confident in their assignment. That’s very important. You can play faster, so [if] you see someone play faster, they’re definitely confident.”

“Shawn is just a really physical guy. He can support in the run game. He also covers really well. So when I have 31 behind me, I’m confident that he got my back and that he’s gonna be able to make some plays.”

It can be tough in the first year of a system to build the required confidence, especially if you’re not an established player. Some will try and overdo their preparation to prove they are good enough to be a big-time contributor. Others can find themselves discouraged and not knowing whether they can ever make it in the system if they don’t understand it as quickly as others.

“I think a lot of people now are definitely a little more confident within the system, the positions that they were playing,” said senior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “For Shawn, last year was our first time with [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham, he probably you know was a little confused in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, still kinda learning in the swing of things. 

“But now that’s he’s been through a full complete year, he’s definitely a lot more comfortable. He knows the ins and outs of the defense. He can tell you where everybody’s going, so I think for anybody being a second year player in this program, you get a little more comfortable, you’re able to play a little faster and execute at a little higher level.” 

As the Gators prepare to travel and take on the Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky — looking to avenge UK ending UF’s record 31-year winning streak in the series last season — they will take all the confidence from the defense that they can get.

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