GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jim McElwain signed six defensive backs in his 2017 recruiting class. They are about to be thrown into the fire this fall with the news of Marcell Harris missing the 2017 season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon.

Injuries are always bad news, but if there was one unit that could least afford an injury, it was the secondary. Florida already faced the tall task of replacing Marcus Maye, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson this season, and Harris only increases the likelihood of starting a true freshman in the secondary against Michigan on Sept. 2.

In Harris’ absence, one would expect Chauncey Gardner Jr. to be moved from cornerback to safety.

This spring, with Harris and Nick Washington occupying the starting safety spots, it made sense to use Gardner, one of the team’s most talented defensive backs, at cornerback. And Gardner was the No. 4 cornerback of the 2016 class, but it was at free safety where he shined as a true freshman and showed the most potential.

In the Outback Bowl, Gardner filled in for Washington at free safety and was named the game’s MVP for making two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

Washington and Gardner make for a solid duo of starting safeties with sophomore Jeawon Taylor next in line.

Florida often played five defensive backs last season under former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, but this season, McElwain and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon have indicated that there will be more three linebacker sets, with one playing a hybrid nickel position.

With Washington, Gardner and preseason first-team All-SEC CB Duke Dawson locked in as starters, the focus turns to finding another cornerback starter. There is a chance that an unproven reserve such as C.J. McWilliams or Joseph Putu could be the starter, but based on last season and this spring, it will more likely be a freshman.

In McElwain’s first two recruiting classes,  when it came to defensive backs, he signed Gardner … and not much else. He made up for that in a big way this February, signing a trio of 4-star cornerbacks Christopher Henderson, Brad Stewart and Marco Wilson (brother of Quincy Wilson).

He also signed 3-star prospects Shawn Davis, Brian Edwards and Donovan Stiner, giving the unit some much-needed depth. Unfortunately for Florida, all six were June enrollees and missed spring practice.

You never know what you’re getting from a freshman, but DBU does have some history of rookie starters stepping up as freshmen.

Janoris Jenkins, Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor were all recognized for their outstanding freshman seasons and were SEC All-Freshmen team members along with various other honors. The coaches who developed Jenkins, Hargreaves and Tabor, however, are long gone.

If Henderson, Stewart or Wilson end up starting at cornerback, they will certainly be targeted by Michigan in Week 1, Tennessee in Week 3 and potentially all season. They all came to Florida to be the next Jenkins, Hargreaves or Tabor, now they have their chance. SEC quarterbacks are certainly licking their chops.