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