GAINESVILLE, Fla. – As fifth-year seniors, Florida safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington were looking forward to finishing their careers as the leaders of the Gators secondary. That changed when Harris tore his Achilles’ tendon last month.
“I mean, him going down was a huge blow,” Washington said. “We came in together. For me, personally, to see him go down was a big thing for us. It really hurt. We always talked about finishing out together and things like that.
“But we have a lot of young guys. They brought guys in. I feel like they all have the ability to step up, it just takes time. We still have a lot of practices to go. Competition has been really good, so I’m excited for those guys.”
In February, coach Jim McElwain signed six defensive backs. As soon as Harris went down, it became clear that one or more of the freshmen would likely play. Washington, CB Duke Dawson and versatile DB Chauncey Gardner Jr. all figure to start in the secondary. For the last one or two spots, the coaches have stressed it’s about finding the four or five best defensive backs and getting them on the field.
Luckily for the freshmen, the defense under Randy Shannon is not as complex as it was under previous defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
“I think coach Shannon has really simplified the defense for a lot of guys, and it has allowed us to play really really fast,” sophomore DE Antonneous Clayton said. “Everybody talks about how our defense has been fast, fast, fast, and I think he’s one of the reasons why.”
For the defensive backs, Washington said the assignments make more sense with Shannon as coordinator.
“Without giving anything away,” he said, “I feel as if, in certain situations where we would have ‘backers cover slot receivers or a shifty tight end, we’ll have the ‘backer play more of the run fit and we’ll have a safety or a corner or a nickel play that ‘backer’s role in that situation.”
One freshman to catch on quickly has been Marco Wilson, younger brother of Quincy Wilson. He has worked with the starters at the nickel position. Washington sees similarities in their style of play.
“He kind of reminds me of his brother a little bit,” Washington said. “He’s kind of physical on the line of scrimmage and he’s really knowledgeable. He knows what to do. He’s in the right place at the right time.”
Wilson was one of three 4-star defensive backs – all rated within the top 175 recruits overall on the 247Sports Composite – to sign with Florida this spring. While the freshmen will have opportunities, there are a few reserve defensive backs pushing for bigger roles as well. CB Joseph Putu, CB C.J. McWilliams, S Quincy Lenton and S Jeawon Taylor were not factors last season for various reasons, but they’re working to show that their experience gives them an edge over the newcomers.
Taylor has added 19 pounds on his 6-foot frame from his freshman season and is pushing to be the team’s second starting safety. Last season, the depth at secondary relegated Taylor to a special teams role, which took some adjusting.
“It was tough,” Taylor said of his freshman season. “Coming from high school you think you’re the man from high school, you think you’re going to be the man in college. Playing that special teams role, just figuring out what role you have to play for the team is kind of tough going.”
As misfortune would have it, one time Taylor could have seen significant playing time in the secondary, he got injured. Last season against FSU, the Gators entered the game down starting safeties Washington and Marcus Maye. During the game, Dawson suffered an ankle injury, leaving the Gators without a third corner to play nickel. With Gardner, the regular backup at nickel, playing in Washington’s spot, the secondary was in desperate need of a safety. It would have been an opportunity for Taylor, but he had already suffered a shoulder injury.
“It was mid first quarter, kick return, I’m blocking,” Taylor said. “We hit each other and I land, extended my arm out and it came out of place.”
Taylor has a photo of the injury as the background on his phone reminding him of how hard he’s worked to get back. For better or worse, he’s part of a unit that’s used to injuries. The Gators have a way of overcoming those injuries, as seen in the 16-10 win at LSU and the 30-3 thumping of Iowa in the Outback Bowl. They plan to handle Harris’ injury the same way.
“People usually forget that we were down a lot later in the year,” Taylor said. “We were down a lot of guys and we still ended up kicking people’s butts.”