Finding a Unicorn: The Depth of the Florida Gators Secondary

Could Marco Wilson be the unicorn that transforms the Gators defense in 2020? Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullen is adamant that there is no set depth chart yet for the Gators 2020 season…and when it does come time to put one together, he is looking for a unicorn.

“We’re still formulating,” Mullen told local media on Tuesday.

“We haven’t even had a scrimmage yet, so we’ll start, what we’re trying to do is we’re still installing.”

Florida will have a scrimmage this weekend, but Mullen’s laissez-faire attitude about the depth chart is nothing new. And as it relates to Todd Grantham’s defense—particularly the secondary—that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One of the perks of Grantham’s system is the ability to constantly motion those on defense. He doesn’t want to pigeon hole any given player into one position because then he can’t move them around and disguise looks. As such, many of those 11 players—especially in the secondary—are important for what they bring in given situations versus first or second string.

Donovan Stiner (13) and Marco Wilson (3) can provide veteran experience on both ends of the secondary. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

In the secondary this coming season, there will be new looks with old faces. Trey Dean will move primarily back to safety, according to Mullen, after spending the first half of the 2019 season at nickel. Safety was Dean’s first and most comfortable position. With the departure of 2019 senior Jeawon Taylor, that particular unit can use another experienced safety to round out the foursome that splits the majority of the reps (Taylor, now Dean; Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart).

When Dean was pulled from nickel last season, corner Marco Wilson was moved over to man the spot for the remainder of the year. But linebackers Mohamoud Diabate and Amari Burney also have been given snaps at the spot, with Burney even starting there for the Orange Bowl win against Virginia.

The nickel is technically a fifth defensive back—thus the name—and is close to the line. He’s definitely the closest DB to the football. Lined up several yards off of the corner and flanking the defensive end. The sheer placement of the position makes the player half cover DB, half linebacker. With that in mind, Mullen and Grantham can began to pluck players from other units and create a subset that is tailored to the roster.

"The reason for us that we've got to have multiple guys be ready to play the nickel position, and guys to move to safety, is so that we can try to match the best person on the best person. You know, I mean, if they're going to have a premier route-runner in the slot all day long, we're going to have to be able to have a Marco [Wilson] be able to go cover that guy, be able to move him there.

“Then have a big blocker…at the point of attack, we've got to get a bigger body in there to go, be able to take the run. I think a lot of that, you see the guys moving, playing the different positions, it's for us to be able to matchup against whoever we have to play throughout the course of the season."

Marco Wilson (3) intercepts a pass versus Tennessee. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Wilson has long been lauded as one of the leagues best corners, and deservedly so. He’s tenacious which makes it difficult for receivers to get space for a catch. But that tenaciousness can also show itself in a physicality that draws flags from that outside corner position. Wilson told GatorBait Magazine before the Orange Bowl that he’d rather play corner than nickel. It makes sense. Every NFL team is going to employ two corners. Not every team will have a nickel. But those that can play the position are in higher demand since their skills are at a premium. One could argue that spending a year as a nickel in Grantham’s defense is what got Chauncey Gardner-Johnson drafted and on the field so much for the New Orleans Saints his rookie year.

So while corner is the “sexier” position, Wilson’s skill sets really do lend themselves more towards that nickel position; or as the Gators call it, the STAR.

“The reason we call it the STAR, and the deal is, you've got to be a star player because you've got to be able to do multiple things,” explains Mullen.

“So, like you said corner is kind of a cool deal, but we don't ask them to do as much as we ask the STAR to do. We need somebody that, obviously the more you can do—very much like that utility guy on offense—the more you can do, the better you are at that position, and I don't have to sub a lot of different guys, right?

“So, you want somebody that is a great cover guy, that can be physical at the point of attack, that can rush off the edge. But those guys, you know, they're kind of unicorns, right? You got to go try to find them, and there's not a lot of them out there. You do see one, and it's a pretty special deal, you've got to be excited that you have one.”

While Mullen and Grantham like to have versatile players that can be moved around to different positions, one spot that should be already set this fall is at corner with Kaiir Elam. The upcoming sophomore received first hand, big-game experience when he started in place of CJ Henderson who was opting out ahead of the NFL Draft.

In his limited action during the 2019 season, Elam finished with 11 tackles, four pass breakups and three interceptions—including one that sealed the Orange Bowl win.

Kaiir Elam helps seal the win in the Orange Bowl. Photo Credit: Chad Ritch

"I think he's done a great job, I think he's really, to me, shown a lot of maturity,” Mullen said of Elam.

“That's the one thing I'm really excited about him. He's a guy that got some experience, he got to play a bunch as a freshman, more as the year went on obviously. You know, a lot of guys that do that get into kind of a sophomore slump. They kind of look and say, ‘hey, didn’t you see me play as a freshman last year. I was freshman All-whatever.’

“That’s great if you were All-whatever, that’s better, but freshman All-whatever means of the couple of guys that played means you were best of the couple of guys that even played. A lot of guys struggle with that, but I love his maturity of what I’ve seen from his growth and maturity of not being satisfied or any thoughts of, ‘hey, this is where I am at and I did a great job last year, look at me.’ He is one of the hardest-working guys out there. He comes and works hard every day to make himself better. He is real student of the game. He’s a much better player now than he was last year.”

With a little less than a month to go now until the 2020 season kicks off, Dan Mullen, Todd Grantham and the Florida Gators still have a lot of questions—at least on paper. But the talent to create positive production is there. Having it come together is like finding a unicorn.

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