Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Seventh in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators
Florida’s DBU legend got a shot in the arm back in April when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected cornerback C.J. Henderson with the ninth pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. He was the first DB from a Southeastern Conference loaded to the gills with talent in the secondary. Henderson is such a lock down guy the Jags figure to plug him in as a starter from day one, which is why the former Gator got a 4-year deal worth $20.5 million with all the money guaranteed. While LSU and Alabama, which both had two members of their outstanding secondaries drafted, might argue with Florida’s claim to the DBU title there is no question the Gators make the short list for sending corners, safeties and nickels to play for pay on Sundays.
It’s been that way for years.
No matter who is the head coach, defensive coordinator or coaching the secondary at UF there always seems to be an abundance of talent that catches the eye of the pro scouts. Since 2000, Florida has gone through six head coaches, ten defensive coordinators and 15 different assistants in the secondary. During that same period of time, 22 Florida defensive backs have been selected in the NFL Draft (seven first rounders, five second rounders) and numerous others have made rosters as undrafted free agents.
Florida ranked 9th nationally in total defense in 2019, allowing 304.8 yards per game. The Gators actually gave up 22 more yards per game through the air in 2019 than they did the year before, but the Gators allowed fewer touchdown passes (16 in 2018; 14 in 2019) and intercepted more passes (16 in 2019; 14 in 2018). For the second straight year the Gators allowed fewer than 7.0 yards per pass attempt, which is outstanding.
The outlook for 2020 is exceptional. Even with the loss of Henderson, a corner who essentially completely took out opponents’ top receiver, the Gators figure to be even better. Losing Henderson would be catastrophic at most schools, but at Florida it’s just next man up. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has plenty of fast, experienced and versatile players, many of whom can play multiple positions. Florida returns six players who started multiple games last season, seven in all who got at least one start. Five UF defensive backs played in all 13 games and another five played in eight or more. Throw in corner C.J. McWilliams (5-11, 184, RSR), who missed all of 2019 with an injury but who has 16 games of experience with two starts, and the Gators have one of the more experienced secondaries in the entire country. They will be bolstered by seven newcomers, a group that Lindy’s preseason magazine ranked among the five best secondary recruiting classes in the country.
Although the schedule isn’t set in stone due to the covid-19 virus, the bulk of Florida’s opponents are expected to play some sort of spread which means the Gators will spend the bulk of their time with five defensive backs on the field. The corners are set with Marco Wilson (6-0, 190, RJR) and Kaiir Elam (6-2, 190, SO) and Amari Burney (6-2, 224) is the likely starter at the STAR, the hybrid box safety/linebacker who is big enough to play the run and quick enough to handle a tight end in coverage.
Wilson missed all of 2018 with an injury and it took a good portion of 2019 for him to shake off the rust of inactivity. As a true freshman in 2017 he broke up 10 passes and was in on 34 tackles. In 2019, Wilson intercepted three passes and was in on 2019. By season’s end he was playing with the confidence and closing skills he showed as a freshman. Elam got five starts as a true freshman when he had 11 tackles and three interceptions. He had a critical pickoff in the Kentucky game and had the fourth quarter interception that preserved Florida’s Orange Bowl win over Virginia. Lindy’s selected Wilson and Elam as its second team preseason corners. Burney missed five games due to injury last year, but he still had 37 tackles and an interception. With his size coupled with the logjam in the secondary, Burney could be moved to linebacker.
The backups at corner figure to be McWilliams, Jaydon Hill (6-0, 175, SO) and Chester Kimbrough (5-11, 175). Hill saw action in 10 games where he was in on 11 tackles with three pass breakups. Kimbrough played in eight games with five tackles and two pass breakups. There isn’t a safety with the size of Burney to play the backup but Brad Stewart Jr., who started three games and played in 10 in 2020, is a sure tackler (28 last year) who plays the run well enough that he could slide over to nickel. Another possibility is highly touted freshman safety Mordecai McDaniel (6-1, 200).
The Gators are blessed with three experienced senior safeties in Stewart, Shawn Davis (5-11, 185) and Donovan Stiner (6-1, 205). Stewart and Davis are the likely starters but Stiner will be on the field every bit as much. Davis, who played in 12 games last year while starting nine, stuffed the stat sheet with 51 tackles, three interceptions that he returned for 111 yards, three pass breakups and a quarterback hurry. He’s a third team safety on the Lindy’s preseason defense. Stiner, who played in all 13 games and started seven, had 30 tackles while tying for the team lead with four interceptions. He’s not spectacular but he simply gets the job done and doesn’t make many mistakes on the back line.
Trey Dean III (6-3, 194, JR) and Quincy Lenton (5-11, 205, SR) are experienced and capable. Both will be in the regular rotation. Dean, who had six starts but struggled somewhat at corner in 2019, is a more natural safety. He had 26 tackles, an interception and two sacks last year. It took Lenton a good portion of the season to get back in the playing groove after missing all of 2018 with an injury. He’s one of Florida’s more valuable special teamers (five of his six tackles on special teams) but figures to get on the field in the defensive rotation more often.
With five seniors and a redshirt junior (Wilson) who could leave early for the NFL Draft, Grantham will need to get at least a few of his freshmen on the field as often as possible. McDaniel is big enough to play safety and quick enough to get reps at corner. Jahari Rogers (6-0, 175), is a former quarterback turned corner who was the 11th-ranked player coming out of the state of Texas last year. Ethan Pouncey (6-1, 170), whose brother Jordan is a wide receiver grad transfer from Texas, is a ball hawk who picked off eight passes (three pick sixes) and had 21 pass breakups at Winter Park. Fenley Graham (5-9, 171) might not see much time in the secondary as a freshman but he could be Florida’s most dangerous punt returner since the days of Brandon James. Rashard Torrence (6-0, 200) and Tre’Vez Johnson (5-11, 175) will try to work their way into the safety rotation while Avery Helm (6-2, 175) could grow into that big corner who could back up Elam.
SCHOLARSHIP DEFENSIVE BACKS (18)
C.J. McWilliams (5-11, 184, RSR) Quincy Lenton (5-11, 205, RSR) Donovan Stiner (6-1, 205, SR) Shawn Davis (5-11, 185, SR) Brad Stewart Jr. (6-0, 200, SR) Marco Wilson (6-0, 190, RJR) Trey Dean III (6-3, 194, JR) Amari Burney (6-2, 224, JR) Kaiir Elam (6-2, 190, SO) Jaydon Hill (6-0, 175, SO) Chester Kimbrough (5-11, 175, SO) Ethan Pouncey (6-1, 170, FR) Avery Helm (6-2, 175, FR) Jahari Rogers (6-0, 175, FR)
Mordecai McDaniel (6-1, 200, FR) Rashard Torrence (6-0, 200, FR)
Fenley Graham (5-9, 171, FR) Tre’Vez Johnson (5-11, 180, FR)
POSITION ANALYSIS: This is a stacked defensive roster, an exceptional mix of experience and talented youth that should make Florida one of the truly elite units in the country. What could separate the Gators from the really good units to join the elite will be the play of the secondary, particularly on third down. Opponents in 2019 converted 36.41% of their third downs, which ranked 40th nationally. Against Georgia, one of Florida’s two losses, Jake Fromm completed 9-11 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown on third down. In the come-from-behind win over Kentucky, backup QB Sawyer Smith was 6-9 for 84 yards and a TD on third down.
In Henderson, the Gators had one of the top two or three corners in all of college football. The tandem of Wilson and Elam could very well be as good if not better than any two corners in the country, especially if Wilson can return to the ability to break on the ball that he showed as a true freshman in 2017. Elam is quite physical and will draw assignments against the bigger wide receivers.
Burney is such a physical tackler. He’s got to avoid the injuries that made him miss five games last year. There are so many exceptional tight ends in the SEC and he can cover them. If there is a question mark in the secondary it’s who backs up Burney. Florida doesn’t have another nickel with his combination of size, strength and speed.
The way Hill and Kimbrough played as true freshmen was encouraging. They both should see the field far more as sophomores. If it’s typical for freshmen, they will earn their playing time by starting out on special teams but there is more than adequate talent and speed. Rogers and Pouncey are very aggressive and that will bode well.
The depth and versatility at safety gives Grantham plenty of options. LSU is the only team in the league that can match the Gators’ depth and experience at the position. Stewart and Davis are both exceptional tacklers with good instincts for the ball. Stewart plays the run so well he could be that box safety to back up Burney. Stiner isn’t flashy but he is steady as a rock. Dean is a player in need of a position. After a couple of up and down seasons at corner and nickel, safety seems to be his natural position. Lenton simply has to stay healthy. The freshmen have to contribute since Stewart, Davis, Stiner and Lenton will all be gone after this season.
Three recruiting classes have given Grantham a true SEC defensive roster from top to bottom, which is what it takes to win championships. Florida was good in 2018, even better in 2019. Making that leap from very good to elite will determine if the Gators can go from a team capable of playing in a third straight New Year’s Six bowl game or one that can make the College Football Playoff. For the Gators to become that team, the defensive backs are going to have to play to their capabilities. The corners are going to have to lock people down and the safeties are going to have to turn the middle of the field into what the great Lawrence Wright used to call “The No Fly Zone,” as in catch the ball over the middle at your own peril.
This is the year Dan Mullen was gearing toward when he took the Florida job in December of 2017. If the secondary shows why UF is on the short list for DBU the Gators will have a legitimate shot at their first SEC championship since 2008.