Florida’s defense, standout secondary primed for toughest test yet vs. Georgia

By Adam Silverstein
October 27, 2016
Florida’s defense, standout secondary primed for toughest test yet vs. Georgia

Image Credit: UAA

The No. 14 Florida Gators have certainly not faced a murder’s row of offenses to this point.

In terms of total offense, Florida has faced the 125th, 120th, 115th, 98th, 80th and 11th teams in the nation, the last of which being Missouri, which piled up yardage against the likes of Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Middle Tennessee.

Similar arguments can be made against the Gators’ defense, which manhandled UMass, Kentucky, North Texas, Vanderbilt, turnover-prone Tennessee (for two quarters) and Mizzou (before subbing in its second-team unit late in the game).

Georgia is far from the best passing offense Florida has seen, though in terms of balance — and with a bye week for a true freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason to further refine his skills — it’s the toughest test the Gators will have faced to this point.

And considering how banged up Florida’s front seven has been, it may be up to the much-heralded secondary to keep the Gators in Saturday’s game.

Junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, along with senior safety Marcus Maye were dealt a blow to their collective ego this week when none of the three wound up on the semifinal list for the 2016 Jim Thorpe Award, handed out each year to the top defensive back in college football.

Crazy, right?

“I don’t know who makes those lists, but I’ll put those two up against anybody in the country, as anybody else will,” said head coach Jim McElwain of his cornerbacks. I don’t know that’s an end-all other than an initial list, but the way these two guys play, you talk about being proud of what you put on film? These guys are proud of what they put on film, and it shows.”

The last time we saw Tabor and Wilson, they were rattling off back-to-back pick-sixes during Florida’s rout of Missouri.

Tabor said he was inspired by Gators ambassador Steve Spurrier, who spoke to Florida earlier that week and “talked about how one guy can affect the whole team.” Tabor “just wanted to be that guy,” and hoped that his touchdown provided “a momentum shift for the whole team.”

It certainly did, so much so that Wilson — a rival-turned-butt-buddy (Tabor’s term) due to their competition for a starting job in 2014 — felt the pressure to match Tabor. He did just that with a return touchdown of his own, putting the ball right back in Tabor’s court. “We talk about how we want to be the best in the country. I got one; he got one. I was trying to get another,” Tabor joked.

After the game, McElwain credited the success of the two star cornerbacks to intense film study and dedication to their craft.

“It starts off the field. We hang out a lot. We watch film together,” the corner presently known as “Teez” said. “I mean, if you see me, you see him. The guys in the locker room joke like you can’t see one without the other. It’s a really good friendly competition and competition brings out the best in us all. That’s been the story of the whole season.”

McElwain loves that opposing quarterbacks are forced to “pick [their] poison” when throwing the ball, noting that it doesn’t hurt to have Maye “back there directing traffic in the middle and getting people lined up like he does” from the safety spot.

Just ask redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio how intimidating it is to go up against that trio in practice.

“First of all, their size. They are big. Quincy, when I first saw him, I thought he was a linebacker,” Del Rio joked. “… To have one first-round corner, that’s special. To have two and maybe even a safety? That’s unheard of. We’re so blessed to have those three guys, including Marcus Maye, on our team. And I’m glad I don’t have to throw against them [in games].”

Maye, of course, had the option to leave after a tremendous 2015 season. He chose to stay in order to improve his coverage, ability to make plays on the ball and efficiency in calling the defense.

Now he’s a part of a secondary that edges Michigan by boasting a nation’s best 80.82 passing efficiency defense. The Gators are No. 2 to Wolverines nationally in total defense (252.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (12.0 points per game).

On Saturday, Florida’s standout defensive backfield will look to contain Georgia’s dynamic freshman Eason, who is coming off the best game of his young career in which he threw for 346 yards and a touchdown on 67.5 percent passing against Vanderbilt. Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie has been a tremendous threat all year, too. The Gators’ front seven will attempt to swallow up running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who average 5.0 yards per carry between them.

In other words, Florida’s defense will need to be solid top-to-bottom if the Gators wish to win their third straight in the series and maintain their lead atop the SEC East.

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