At last, we close our summer position preview segment with a look at the Gators’ proudest and possibly most talented unit: the secondary. Can the 2016 group live up to the name of DBU?
The leader: Jalen Tabor. You could make a case for Marcus Maye as the leader of the secondary as a four year contributor to the team. But there’s really little debate that this is Tabor’s unit, and maybe even his team. OK, yes, he got himself suspended for a fight with C’yontai Lewis, but he’s an amazing young man with talent through the roof. In fact, he’s more naturally talented than Vernon Hargreaves, and arguably ahead of where VH3 was at this point a year ago. And let’s remember that VH3 was a top ten NFL Draft pick if New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese brass had conducted his draft with what passes for his brain attached. Tabor’s got all the instincts and reflexes Hargreaves does, but what sets him apart is his added physicality and quick feet. The only thing left for him to work on is his play recognition- which is good, but not quite at the top tier level of his other attributes. If he can avoid more trouble, he’s a guaranteed top five pick in next year’s draft- and a likely first team All-American.
The second in command: Marcus Maye. Losing Keanu Neal and Brian Poole at once hurts, but that just means it’s time for Maye to step up and do more. The senior from Melbourne did the Gators a huge favor by passing up millions to return for the 2016 season, and now Florida has experience littered throughout its defensive backfield. Maye has locked down the strong safety spot, and his hard hitting abilities and high football IQ have drawn praise from the coaches throughout the offseason. Like Tabor, Maye has All-American potential, and now it’s just a matter of him putting it all together.
The dark horse: Nick Washington. The days where Washington’s claim to fame is a fumbled punt by Georgia are dwindling. Translation: this kid is brimming with promise. The Gators are looking for a second safety to help patrol the backfield opposite Maye, and Washington is just the candidate. He’s a big hitting safety with impressive speed to boot, and two years of sitting and waiting his turn have him chomping at the bit. Geoff Collins knows he’s got a hidden gem here, and after learning the ropes from Maye for a week or two, Washington should cement himself as the other starting safety in 2016.
The other guys: Duke Dawson, Quincy Wilson, Marcell Harris, Chauncey Gardner. Wilson has the CB2 slot pretty much locked up for the next two years if he wants it. Between Tabor and Wilson, the Gators should once again have one of the nation’s top cornerback tandems. As for the rest of the aforementioned guys? They’ll play in packages where five or more DB’s are needed: Gardner will probably see some action at nickel, while Dawson will get some snaps at dime. Harris, meanwhile, gives the Gators a viable third safety option should Maye or Washington get injured or need a breather.
The key to success: play recognition. To I touched on this with Jalen Tabor, but it goes for the entire unit. This is a secondary with NFL talent everywhere you look, and they often rely on their natural abilities to make plays. But they would make things a lot easier if they learned to recognize tendencies in opponents based on formations and personnel- particularly the younger guys. It’s great to be a freakishly talented athlete like Tabor, but even he could improve by 10-15% if he learned to detect tendencies rather than reacting to everything.
The outlook: While perhaps not quite as over the top ridiculous as last year in terms of raw talent, there’s still a reason the Gators are DBU. Tabor, Wilson and Maye could each go in the first round of next year’s draft if they continue to make strides this year, and that just means more toys for Torrian Gray to play with in coverage schemes. Even the “new” faces like Dawson and Washington have plenty of real game experience. Simply put, the ceiling is stratospheric for this group.
The verdict: Replacing three key contributors at once would be a problem for most teams and most units, but not the Florida Gators’ secondary. Despite losing all that production from a year ago, the 2016 secondary has the potential to be even better than it was in 2015. Assuming Tabor, Maye and Wilson continue to progress, and not regress, the secondary will continue its legacy as DBU- meaning it should again be one of the nation’s best.