Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Trey Dean is well aware of how his season unfolded, in both perception and reality. He understands what the expectations were as the 2019 season kicked off, and he knows the result was skewed.
“I’d rather have adversity now than have it later. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The sophomore defensive back was placed in a vaulted position for Todd Grantham’s defense this year when he took over the STAR (nickel) position. It was a spot left vacated by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson after being drafted to the New Orleans Saints, where he made a significant contribution to their postseason run.
When Dean took over, the assumption was that it would seamless. The reasoning was that Dean had performed admirably his true freshman year when filling in at corner for the injured Marco Wilson. And the presumption arose following Gardner-Johnson’s stand out junior season that arguably the most difficult position on the defense would be simplistic. After all, it was played with relative ease just a year ago.
Trey Dean knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“You gotta know everything. It’s little tweaks to it. Dude motions from other side to other side to other side of the field, it changes the whole defense. If you’re blitzing, they want you to blitz hard but if the back jumps to the other side and he motions out, you gotta peel the back…it’s a different read. Pre-snap play, read, might be a different read then when it starts.”
Decisions are made on the fly, he explains, often in the space of time between the ball being snapped and it landing in the quarterback’s hands.
“Like that,” he snaps his fingers.
The STAR is technically a fifth defensive back—thus the nickel definition—used primarily in passing situations to cover multiple wide-out formations. It’s been around for the majority of professional football and has trickled down into the college ranks, typically courtesy of those coaches who are coming from the league; i.e. Nick Saban and Todd Grantham.
Over the years it has evolved into a hybrid position, meant to cover the options most often seen in the RPO and spread offenses much like the BUCK position also employed by the Gators. While the latter is a flex of a defensive lineman and linebacker, handling duties in the front seven, the STAR can play as a defensive back and linebacker—which is why linebacker Amari Burney has often served as the back-up/rotational guy—covering the pass and run. Making the decision which to cover has become more complex with option plays. The position requires a marrow understanding of the entire defense.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham feels the learning curve isn’t steep; it’s merely accelerated.
“It’s shorter zones, things happen quicker sometimes because you’re closer to the ball, it’s like any sport the closer you get to the ball the quicker things happen. But from a learning position, it’s not really, I mean, if you’re the flat player you have first to the flat, if you’re the hook player you’re going to stay inside of two, so there’s concepts there that you can break it down to about three or four things and you put all your techniques into that, and then you just kind of react and play relative to what you see.”
For Dean, moving from corner to STAR required him to relearn a game he thought he’d had a handle on already.
“Nickel wasn’t a bad move. Just like a lot of things you gotta learn. You gotta be able to grasp a lot of things. Especially it being my first year. I remember at corner, I ain’t had to do nothing but just like little things. Cause know what I’m saying, I was at corner, it ain’t that much to do.
"At nickel, you gotta play the run, you gotta play the pass, you gotta blitz. To blitz, you gotta peel the backend and things. Lotta little tweaks to it that can cause a lot of error in a defense. Our defense is built around the STAR.
“From last year, the defense, [Grantham] couldn’t really open it up cause everybody was learning, everybody. But this year, he could build upon what we did last year. But you know I was at corner last year so I’m still—I had to start over,” he laughs.
“So he building on what we did last year. I’m still trying to catch up. You know, it’s all love around here.”
The love doesn't make the hard conversations cease to exist, but it makes them necessary and somewhat easier. So when Grantham made the switch from Dean to Wilson later in the season, both men focused on their new positions without public spectacle. It also didn’t take long for Wilson to validate much of what Dean explained as the difficulty with the spot.
“It’s more complex than just playing outside corner. You have to read more keys and you got to be more involved with things that are going on. Playing outside corner, you are on your own most of the time doing your own thing.”
Trey Dean is bigger than Wilson, yet Wilson has slightly more physicality. It could bring about penalties when playing the more finesse position of corner, but it’s served him well at STAR. After making the permanent switch three quarters into the season, Wilson’s average tackles per game increased from 2.2 to four.
As for Dean—Wilson and others tried to be the loudest voice he heard amidst an onslaught of negativity, as head coach Dan Mullen explains.
“These guys are young guys, and there’s lots of pressure put on them. And they put a lot of pressure on themselves. It’s one of those things of just making sure [Trey’s] focus is where it needs to be to continue to improve and to continue to gain confidence and go play.”
"Thing are going to happen in this game,” Wilson says he told his teammate.
“You’re not always going to play perfect. Everybody knows that. Whenever you get your opportunities to get in the play, wherever you are — nickel, outside — just do what got to do and make some plays.”
Adds safety Donovan Stiner, “it’s really tough especially because he’s a young player playing STAR, which is one of the hardest positions on defense because of all the roles he has to play playing STAR. He’s a young player. He’s still growing. He’s getting better and I know he’s working hard.”
So what’s next? Marco Wilson announced he will put off the NFL Draft for another year and return to Florida while fellow corner C.J. Henderson elected to enter the draft. Freshman Kaiir Elam was used outside when Wilson moved inside and Dean was used in flexible situations. Wilson told GatorBait Magazine before the Orange Bowl that he wants NFL teams to see him as a corner, but he will also return as the incumbent at STAR. Amari Burney should also get a significant look. Elam will likely start at corner as a sophomore. Three of the four safeties will return (Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart).
This leaves coaches options with which to utilize Trey Dean. He knows the experiment at STAR wasn’t what would be considered wildly successful. He also knows that will only help him.
“The overall adversity, it’s gonna help me. Cause playing STAR allowed me to really understand the defense so now I know corner and STAR so if I were to move to safety, I already know what the STAR’s doing, I know what the corner’s doing so I kinda know where I need—ok I know what the quarterback’s seeing cause I know these spots gonna be covered if I jump this route.”
Dean played safety in high school meaning his versatility coupled with the competitiveness that made him so valuable in 2018 will ensure he stays on the field.
“When you look at Trey, Trey’s a very competitive guy, very passionate guy,” comments Grantham.
“He’s a guy that we were able to win 10 games with as an outside player. This year we’re actually *7-2 with him as inside player. We’ve won seven games with him this year. We’ll continue to work and develop him and kinda get him in the right spot.”
*at the time of comment
When asked what position he’d prefer to play next season, Dean offers a Cheshire grin, not quite wanting to commit himself to a decision that’s technically not his to make.
“I could do both, whatever my team want me to do. Like my coaches say, I’m the most versatile DB out there so you know like I could do a lot, I’m capable of doing a lot of things.”
But still, he has hopes.
“Ok I’m gonna narrow it down. I’m gonna say corner or safety. I ain’t even gonna say STAR. I’m gonna say corner or safety.
“Most likely they’ll move me to corner or safety but probably doing like different packages. So like in, in base I’ll go to safety you know just to have another somebody roam the field just to make plays…I most likely will be free safety so I’ll be roaming.”
Trey Dean is well aware of how this season unfolded, in both perception and reality. Now it’s over and he’s moving on with some hard earned lessons.
“I’m gonna always trust in God, trust in my trainer and trust in my coaches, continue to get better each and every day. I think next year, this year coming up is gonna be a big year for me.”