The Florida Gators have enjoyed a rich tradition in recent years as it pertains to cornerbacks. Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins, Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins have all roamed the sidelines and assisted in locking up receivers like bounty hunters.
Under the tutelage of great defensive minds: Charlie Strong (Texas head coach), Vance Bedford (Texas defensive coordinator), Teryl Austin (Detroit Lions DC), Dan Quinn (Seattle Seahawks DC) and most importantly current head coach Will Muschamp, the Gators’ aggressive, multi-schemed attacks have challenged corners to be physical, intelligent and precise.
Those three characteristics, and then some, describe sophomore CB Vernon Hargreaves III — who more than lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Gainesville. As the No. 2-ranked overall recruit, according Rivals 100, we all expected Hargreaves to be good. But could he end up being the best we’ve ever seen at the position — in the SEC?
As the old saying goes: The tape doesn’t lie!
Hall of Fame CB Deion Sanders was revered for his once-in-a-lifetime athleticism; Champ Bailey (New Orleans Saints) was seen as Sander’s clone who played with a lot more physicality; Darrelle Revis (New England Patriots) may be the first to be celebrated for his technique over his athleticism (and he’s a darn good athlete).
Revis’ prowess has inspired this generation to focus on the technical part of “cornerbacking,” for lack of a better term, much like LA Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant has inspired young basketball players to operate effectively in the mid-range game.
Hargreaves undoubtedly spent his formative years watching Revis, and it’s eerie how much his game resembles the future Hall of Famer’s.
At 5’11″, 194 pounds, both Revis and Hargreaves are identical in physical stature. While football is trending towards the taller corner, like Seattle Seahawks’ 6’3″ Richard Sherman, there’s no substitute for being able to mirror routes, make smooth transitions in and out of breaks and control receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Here’s a classic example of Revis’ ability to control receivers purely on technique. Employing a press-man technique against a receiver running a curl route, he displayed a strong base at the line of scrimmage by having the perfect width in his stance.
He pressed the receiver with his right hand to send him towards the sideline. This is a very important aspect of the bump-and-run technique (for out-breaking routes and streaks). Sending a receiver to the sideline leaves him with very little room to operate.
Additionally, Revis came out of his transition about as perfect as he could. By positioning his body between the receiver and the ball, Revis effectively “boxed out” the receiver. While it may not seem like it from this sequence, as Revis makes it looks easy, defending the short game is about as hard as it gets — as technique trumps athleticism.
Here we see Hargreaves playing an inside technique against a slant route — wearing No. 24 like Mr. Revis. His base looks a lot like Revis’, as does his ability to flip his hips during his transfer. Flipping your hips, as opposed to rotating your body, cuts down on transfer time. Furthermore, he undercuts the route by going in front of the receiver to deflect the pass.
Hargreaves in man coverage (providing a free outside release), coincidentally, at a Florida State camp. Showing how Hargreaves works in practice is significant as he’s truly a stud practice player who implements those exact habits in the game. Some players are sloppy with their technique in practice and it shows at the moment of truth.
Hargreaves mirrors the receiver’s deep-post route; he tracks when the receiver eyes the pass; he performs the look-and-lean technique (which calls for the corner to feel for the receiver while tracking the ball); he high-points the ball.
Case in point: Hargreaves once again gets his body into the receiver, Tennessee standout Marquez North, hits him with the look-and-lean technique (effectively shielding him from the pass) and deflects the pass at its highest point. It doesn’t get much better than this for fans of great defensive back play.
“VH3″ ended his stellar freshman season with 38 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass deflections. Being the son of Vernon Hargreaves Jr., a veteran defensive coach of 25-plus seasons, has obviously paid dividends in his technique. But according to his coach, he’s still eager to improve.
“He’s a guy that’s got a burning desire to be really, really good,” said head coach Will Muschamp at SEC Media Days (h/t to Fox Sports’ Knox Bardeen). “He’s in the film room constantly. He’s correcting himself. He’s coachable. All the intangible things you want a player to be he possesses.”
Those intangibles include self-awareness and leadership.
“I played pretty well last year,” Hargreaves expressed. “Obviously I have to get better, and bring the young guys along.”
One of the players he’s undoubtedly referring to is highly touted freshman Jalen Tabor — who has the type of talent to reprise the Jenkins/Haden-like duo in combination with Hargreaves.
Those young guys should pay attention to how Hargreaves never quits on a play.
Here we see VH3 defending a broken play. All the great corners are as competitive as it gets; Hargreaves is no exception.
He gets shoved off on the transition — with the receiver initially running an out-route. You can tell he was peeved that he was “out-muscled,” so he made sure he returned the favor to the receiver during the recovery process.
Additionally, he had the wherewithal to monitor both the quarterback and receiver simultaneously. While trying to catch up to the receiver, he has to eye the QB to make sure he doesn’t escape out the back door. And when he decides to put his head down and run, his recovery speed is extremely apparent.
Being that he’s a defensive back under one of the very best defensive minds in the business in Muschamp (who spent numerous years under the tutelage of famed Alabama coach Nick Saban — the very best), you know his tackling ability has to be top notch.
Furthermore, he’s adept at off-man; he’s great with area principles; his bump-and-run technique is unmatched.
But most importantly, he has the will to be great and is eager to learn. It’s usually those aspects that separate the great from the elite. And for my money he’s bordering on elite after only one season in college.
Now that’s scary.