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Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Gators trying to develop safety depth

By Michael DiRocco

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Versatile defensive backs Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs starting at safety would be best for Florida's defense.

For the season opener against Toledo, anyway.

Will Muschamp
Florida coach Will Muschamp is giving several players a chance to prove themselves in the early going.

But UF coach Will Muschamp is concerned about October and November, which is why he’s giving several other players a chance to prove they should be a starter at either safety spot. Developing depth at a position that has struggled to replace Matt Elam and Josh Evans means he can’t go with the solution.

"I want to find out what the other kids can do," Muschamp said. "No different than [cornerback] Loucheiz [Purifoy] on offense. When you play him on offense, you're not going to find out what those other guys [at receiver] can do. You've got to find out what those guys can do. You have to build and develop your team for a long season. There are going to be injuries.

"It's not about who is starting. I don't worry about that. Who can we count on? This many guys at this position, this many guys at this position. Tell me who six, seven, eight and nine are. That's what I want to know."

Right now Muschamp knows that he hasn’t been pleased with safeties Marcus Maye, Valdez Showers and Jabari Gorman. They struggled with communication issues and consistency in the spring, which is why Muschamp announced last week that Riggs -- a 5-foot-9, 187-pound redshirt junior cornerback who has 56 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception in his career -- has been permanently moved to safety.

Watkins, a 6-foot, 181-pound senior who started 11 games last season at cornerback, spent time at safety in the spring. But he is starting preseason practices as a corner. If Maye, Showers or Gorman don’t improve, he’ll likely be back at safety for the season opener.

"They both have [knowledge of the system] and they understand the adjustments and things," Muschamp said of Watkins and Riggs. "We put a lot on our safeties as far as making adjustments and things they’ve got to do. They’re both very good communicators and they both cover extremely well.

"They’ll be a good example of the younger players developing at the positions."

So why not just go with those two? Look at UF’s offensive line in 2012 for the answer, Muschamp said. The Gators got banged up there and was forced to use backups Kyle Koehne, Ian Silberman and D.J. Humphries as starters or in key roles. Had they not gotten reps with the first team at times during practices, they probably wouldn’t have been ready or confident enough to handle being thrust into the lineup.

That’s the case with the safeties. Gorman, Maye and Showers need to be on the field with the first unit and face UF’s top offensive players. Maye is a redshirt freshman so he has no experience. Showers, a redshirt sophomore, has played in 11 games, mainly on special teams.

Gorman is the most experienced, having played in 25 games in his first two seasons. But he has just 10 tackles and most of his playing time came on special teams.

So Muschamp knows those three are going to make mistakes, including some that may result in long scoring plays, but it’s the only way they’ll get better.

"Training camp is developing your roster as much as anything, especially young players," Muschamp said. "It's not going to be pretty early with a lot of them. My whole thing is you've got to project. Game 4, where are we? Game 5, where are we? Are we investing time in a guy that he may know what to do, but athletically we're going to be better with this guy in Game 3, Game 4, Game 5?

"We’ll continue to put those guys and strain those guys in the positions they’re in."

And if they don’t respond, it’ll be Watkins and Riggs against Toledo -- and possibly the entire season.