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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Spring question No. 3: Safeties

By Michael DiRocco

As part of our spring practice preview, each day this week GatorNation will address the five biggest questions facing the Gators. Today we’ll look at the uncertain situation at safety. On Thursday, we’ll examine whether the offense can make a jump in the second year under Brent Pease similar to what the defense did last season in its second year under Dan Quinn.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the better competitions during Florida’s spring practices will be to find a pair of safeties.

Matt Elam declared for the NFL draft after an All-American season and Josh Evans graduated following the best season of his career, so replacing those two won’t be easy. However, the Gators have plenty of options, including moving a cornerback or two into the back end.

Jaylen Watkins
Jaylen Watkins, UF's most experienced defensive back, could be a candidate to move from cornerback to safety.
Probably the top candidate right now is sophomore Brian Poole, who played in 12 games last season but made just three tackles. ESPN ranked the 5-foot-10, 206-pound Poole as the nation’s No. 7 cornerback in 2012, but he was moved to safety within the first week of August practices, mainly because of the glut of talent at cornerback -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins.

After Poole, though, things aren’t as clear.

Will Muschamp, who coaches the safeties, could choose to slide Riggs or Watkins over from cornerback. Riggs, a 5-9, 190-pound redshirt junior, has played in 28 games as a corner (14 starts) and on special teams and has 58 tackles and one interception in his career. He doesn’t have prototypical safety size, and he is coming off a broken foot that cost him all but two games last season.

Watkins (6-0, 187) is UF’s most experienced defensive back. He has played in 36 games (19 starts) and has 81 tackles, three interceptions and 14 pass breakups. He was UF’s most consistent corner last season and started 11 games. It’s more likely Riggs would get moved before Watkins, but he is certainly an option.

One thing that may keep Riggs and Watkins at corner in the spring will be Purifoy’s time on offense. He’s going to spend most of the spring working at receiver, and Muschamp may be reluctant to only have his top three corners available.

But Muschamp may not have any choice if junior Jabari Gorman or any of the other three young players fails to develop. The 5-10, 188-pound Gorman has played in 25 games, mainly on special teams, and has just 10 tackles. He did come up with two critical turnovers last season, though, picking off a pass against South Carolina and recovering a fumble against Florida State.

Redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers (5-11, 188) played in 11 games on special teams and as a reserve safety last season. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Maye (5-11, 203) and Rhaheim Ledbetter (5-11, 206 pounds) also will have a chance to win a job. Maye was the No. 8 safety in the nation in 2012, while Ledbetter was the No. 9 safety overall and the No. 7 player in North Carolina.

UF will finish spring practice with a working depth chart, but the competition will increase in August when signees Marcell Harris (Orlando, Fla./Dr. Phillips), Nick Washington (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian) and Keanu Neal (Bushnell, Fla./South Sumter) arrive. Plus, there’s the Vernon Hargreaves III factor. The nation’s No. 1 cornerback and No. 3 overall player, a 5-11, 185-pound athlete from Tampa (Fla.) Wharton, might be good enough to step in and earn significant playing time in the cornerback rotation.

If that’s the case, then it would be easier for Muschamp to move Riggs or Watkins to get an experienced player to pair with Poole – or even have both start.

For now, the Gators just need to work to come up with a pair of starters for March.