Florida Gators: Brian Poole

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Florida two-deep: Cornerback

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
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Editor’s note: We’re breaking down the Gators’ two-deep depth chart every day for the next two weeks. We’ll cover every position as well as offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

CORNERBACK

The starters: Sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III and true freshman Jalen Tabor

The backups: Junior Brian Poole and true freshman Duke Dawson

The rest: True freshmen J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Vernon Hargreaves III gives Florida a shutdown corner that is among the country's elite.
The lowdown: Florida is on a major roll in terms of producing NFL cornerbacks, and the next in line could be the best one yet. Hargreaves arrived last summer with the aura of an elite freshman. His physical tools and ability to convert coaching into advanced technique earned him instant respect and playing time. He tied a school record with 11 pass breakups and was named first-team All-SEC, the first time UF had a freshman earn that honor since 1991. Hargreaves returns as the anchor of the secondary and will be counted on to shut down an opponent's best receiving threat every week. His experience in starting the final 10 games of the 2013 season will be invaluable, as Florida lost all four of its other starters from the secondary last season. With so many departures, the Gators have no choice but to throw some true freshmen into the fire this fall. Tabor and Dawson enrolled early and shared first-team reps throughout spring. Coaches love Tabor's long arms and ability to cover a lot of ground, while Dawson was just as good in coverage and showed more of a physical edge. The Gators play a lot of nickel, so it really doesn't matter which freshman corner wins the starting job opposite Hargreaves. There will be plenty of playing time for Tabor, Dawson and Poole, who started six games last season as UF's nickel back.

The future: Florida coach Will Muschamp had to load up on cornerbacks in his 2014 class after junior starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson left early for the NFL. Those openings allowed Muschamp to reel in five cornerbacks, four of whom were ranked in the ESPN 300. Jackson is an electric athlete with the ball in his hands. Florida coaches are planning to start his career at cornerback, but there could be a strong temptation to use him on offense and in the kick return game this fall. Wilson, at 6-foot-1, 197 pounds, is athletic enough to play corner but has the frame to eventually move to safety. Porter, a late addition to Florida's 2013 class, played quarterback in high school and can also play wide receiver but will get a first look at corner. Knowing Hargreaves and Poole are likely around for just two more seasons, Florida is continuing to recruit this position with zeal. The Gators have two pledges for 2015. Marcus Lewis, at 6-foot-2, 187 pounds, is another cornerback who could be a safety someday. Jalen Julius is an athlete who could also end up at wide receiver. The Gators' top remaining target is former Syracuse commit Davante Davis, who camped at UF last week and got an offer. At 6-3, he's another long defensive back who would offer position versatility.

Replacing the Gators: Defense

May, 13, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is over, so it's time to talk about the next wave of Gators.

Florida only had four players selected last weekend, but three were from the defensive side of the ball.

Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on defense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

DT Dominique Easley
First-round pick, New England Patriots
Florida already has experience in dealing with the loss of Easley, who tore his ACL in practice after Week 3 and left a huge void in the defense for the rest of the season. Easley was a heart-and-soul leader with a relentless motor and a lightning-quick first step, attributes that are in rare supply in college football. Leadership and passion aside, finding a defensive tackle who can disrupt the running and passing game is a huge task. Florida will turn to Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, two seniors who are solid starters but have yet to make a consistent impact. Much of Orr's production in 2013 came after Easley's injury, and he does have good tools to work with at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds. Cummings looked quicker, more confident and more disruptive in spring practice. However, the Gators ultimately might need one of their talented freshmen to emerge and bump one of those seniors to a backup role.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrian Poole has played cornerback, nickel corner and safety for Florida.
DB Jaylen Watkins
Fourth-round pick, Philadelphia Eagles
Another Gator who will be hard to replace, Watkins was a steady performer at cornerback, nickel corner and safety in his last couple of seasons. Florida is counting on some of its young defensive backs to give them that same kind of versatility. Heading into his junior season, Brian Poole has played all three of those positions but didn't grab a hold of the starting cornerback job that was available in spring practice. He could end up back at nickelback, where he made the first six starts of his career last season. At safety, Florida has steady senior Jabari Gorman and a host of talented youngsters. Sophomore Marcus Maye could get first crack based on the experience he gained last year in 12 games and two starts. Coaches are also very high on sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.

LB Ronald Powell
Fifth-round pick, New Orleans Saints
Powell, who played a mix of buck linebacker and strongside linebacker in his final season, brought some pass rush off the edge and flashed the ability to play in space. Dante Fowler Jr. took over at the buck position last season and eventually pushed Powell to outside linebacker. Fowler has the pass-rushing potential to give the Gators a big upgrade. At the SAM linebacker spot, Florida has senior Neiron Ball, who at 6-3, 235 has a similar build to Powell. Ball is more fluid in coverage but needs to be more consistent in stopping the run and rushing the passer.

CB Marcus Roberson
Undrafted free agent, St. Louis Rams
The Gators employ more man coverage than most college defenses, and as a result they attract some terrific prospects. Roberson was one such player, who used his instincts to thrive in one-on-one battles. With two junior cornerbacks forgoing their senior seasons at UF, the numbers are now thin, but coaches can rely on star sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III to lead the secondary. There is also plenty of enthusiasm for Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, two freshmen who enrolled in January. They competed throughout spring practice, showing plenty of skill and the ability to learn on the fly. At 6-1, 188, Tabor is effective in using his long arms to blanket receivers. Dawson, at 5-11, 190, is just as good in coverage but plays a more physical style.

CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
One of the best athletes on Florida's recent rosters, Purifoy made an impact at cornerback, as an elite-level gunner on special teams and even in limited time at wide receiver. Aside from Tabor and Dawson, Florida coaches are also very high on true freshman J.C. Jackson, who will enroll in June. Jackson is an explosive offensive talent, but his future could very well be at cornerback where he'll start his college career. Jackson could also make an impact right away as a kick returner.

LB Darrin Kitchens
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Kitchens was a valuable reserve linebacker, who was fundamentally sound and solid against the run. Florida appears set on its first unit with Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Senior Michael Taylor will also get plenty of playing time. Behind those three, Florida is hoping its young talent will emerge in 2014. Sophomore Daniel McMillian showed improvement throughout spring practice. The Gators also could get a lift from two bigger linebackers in Alex Anzalone (6-3, 239) and Matt Rolin (6-4, 227), each of whom missed the spring with injuries but are expected to push for playing time this fall.

DT Damien Jacobs
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Another solid backup, Jacobs stepped up after Easley's injury and was a solid run-stuffer. Florida has three young linemen it is counting on in 2014 to become a part of the rotation at tackle -- sophomore Joey Ivie and redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick. Coaches are confident in all three when it comes to ability but are looking for more maturity and consistent effort. Three more exciting freshmen prospects -- Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark -- arrive in the summer, and Florida won't hesitate to burn a redshirt if any of them prove he is ready to contribute right away.

Stock watch: Florida Gators

May, 2, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With spring practice fully digested, let's take a look at which Florida Gators' stock is up and who's on the way down.

RISING

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. looks ready to terrorize SEC quarterbacks after a strong spring.
Dante Fowler Jr.: The hybrid defensive end/linebacker altered his diet and dropped some body fat before spring. He quickly proved to be Florida's most consistent pass-rushing threat and showed flashes of dominating offensive linemen. While Fowler became an obvious team leader off the field, it appeared that many of his teammates were in awe of his talents on the field.

Starting O-line: Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries shook off last season's struggles and looked more like the prospect who arrived at UF with elite status. Junior Tyler Moore looked comfortable at left guard and was largely recovered from a broken elbow. Senior Max Garcia consistently earned praise despite struggling with shotgun snaps in his transition to a new position. Senior Trenton Brown played well enough to force the coaches to find a starting spot for him at right guard. Senior right tackle Chaz Green held off Brown's challenge and showed that he's finally healthy after missing last season with a torn labrum.

Demarcus Robinson: The sophomore receiver was in the doghouse and suspended twice last year but came back with more maturity and focus this spring. His talent was so obvious in practice one teammate called him "a freak." A physical presence at 6-foot-2 with speed and vision, Robinson looks like UF's best chance for a breakout star in the passing game.

Bryan Cox Jr.: Going into spring, Florida didn't have much at the defensive end position beyond Fowler and junior Jonathan Bullard. Cox opened his coaches' eyes with a non-stop motor that always showed up in film review and allowed them to experiment with Bullard at tackle. Cox might not be a starter in the fall, but the sophomore assured himself a lot of playing time with his spring performance.

Adam Lane: The redshirt freshman isn't high up on the running back depth chart, but he excited coaches and teammates with his running style. At 5-7 and 222 pounds, Lane is built like a bowling ball. He doesn't have breakaway speed, but always seems to bounce off defenders and fall forward.

FALLING

Brian Poole: As one of the few upperclassmen in UF's secondary, Poole had an opportunity to grab the coveted starting job opposite Vernon Hargreaves III. Instead of standing out, however, he blended in with two true freshman competitors and could wind up back at the nickel cornerback position where he played last fall.

Caleb Brantley: Much is expected of the redshirt freshman who was one of the nation's top Class of 2013 prospects. Florida is urgently trying to develop some difference-makers on the D-line, but Brantley doesn't always respond well to coaching and his motor runs hot and cold.

Valdez Showers: It has been an adventurous few months for Showers, who converted from safety to running back last August and spent all of spring as a slot receiver. He showed he still needs to work on his hands and fell behind Latroy Pittman, but Showers can expect more chances and playing time this fall.

Antonio Riles: Position changes are rarely a good sign in college football, but it's still early for the redshirt freshman who moved from defensive tackle/end to offensive guard. Coaches and teammates say he's got natural ability to play the O-line, but this move might have more to do with Florida's incoming D-line talent.

Raphael Andrades: Already a junior despite hardly playing in 2013, the wide receiver surprised many by playing as a true freshman and even starting three games. But he has just two career receptions and is now buried deep on an expanding depth chart.

REBOUNDING

Austin Hardin: The sophomore kicker showed that he's not giving up his job without a fight. After working on his mechanics throughout the offseason, he was consistent in practice and hit all four of his field goals in the spring game. Hardin will have to fend off more competition in fall camp.
Editor’s note: With Florida’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, we’ll clean out the notebook this week and touch on a few remaining topics.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like star sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators' secondary is young and talented.

Unlike Hargreaves, though, most of Florida's defensive backs are unproven. There are just two upperclassmen in the group -- senior safety Jabari Gorman and junior nickel back Brian Poole. There are just two jobs nailed down -- Hargreaves at one corner spot and Gorman at one of the safety positions.

The rest of the UF defensive backfield is full of uncertainty, but loaded with potential.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCB Vernon Hargreaves has one spot locked down in a young but talented Florida secondary.
It's not a bad problem to have.

"We want to get out there and find out exactly who can do what and where we’re comfortable with them playing, where they’re comfortable playing," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said during spring practice. "I don’t think by any means we’ve penciled in an answer by the end of spring break. We’ve got young guys and we’ve got to keep putting them in different situations. That’s what we’re trying to do in practice.

"They’ve responded really well. I feel good about where we’re at back there. We’re a talented group back there. It’s going to be a matter of guys keep competing and going at it. We want them to have that feeling all summer long, going into August, know that every day you’re competing for your job."

Florida coaches feel they have just enough experience and leadership to build a solid secondary. Young players such as true freshman corners Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson leaned heavily on Hargreaves, while Gorman took command of a young group of safeties.

"We have all the talent in the world but we still have to get the mental part down," Hargreaves said, "just knowing what to do, knowing your assignments. I think we’ll be all right, though."

The situation at corner is simple. Florida lacks bodies, so both freshmen can expect to play this fall.

At safety, the Gators have options galore.

"Leaders have to step forward," Gorman said. "Let those young guys believe in you. If they believe, then everybody believes and we'll all be OK."

Behind Gorman, Florida has two sophomores in Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal who got their feet wet last fall by playing in all 12 games. Maye got more minutes, starting two games, but there is a lot of excitement around Neal.

"[Neal] plays the game at a really high speed," Durkin said. "When he's on the field you feel him. You know he's out there. You can see it. He plays fast. He's very physical. He's a guy that now understands our defense better. He's been in there a little while.

"He'll absolutely be playing a number of spots for us. He's physical enough to do a lot of things for us, and he runs really well too so he has coverage ability. He has everything you're looking for in a safety."

Neal was part of Florida's sterling Class of 2013. He was one of the Gators' three safety signees, all of whom were ranked among the top -11 safety prospects in the nation. The other two -- Marcell Harris and Nick Washington -- redshirted due to injury.

"Competition will always be high," Harris said. "It’s spring and everyone is showing what they can do as a player. Coaches are always evaluating. There’s a lot of talent back there at safety. You’ve got veterans and us new guys that came in. We’re just out there competing every day and giving it our all for coach [Will] Muschamp."

It's hard to please the head coach who doubles as the safeties' position coach and has very high standards based on his own successful SEC career as a Georgia Bulldogs safety.

"Certainly the talent level is there, but we have a ways to go to shore up some things on the back end," Muschamp said after the spring game. " ... I think you go into a day like today, get some answers about where you are and how far you need to go, but more than anything sometimes for those young players to realize how far away they are. Sometimes they can get a little bit of skewed opinion of where they are."

Exactly the kind of growing pains Muschamp anticipated from his DBs. At the very least, though, the spring game gave the youngsters a chance to take a lot of reps and show what they can do.

"The secondary looked really good," starting linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal, those guys looked good all spring. Marcell really showed out today, showed what he can do. Keanu showed it last week in the scrimmage. Everybody’s doing really good back there. I really like what we have."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody does optimism quite like a football team in springtime. Especially one with a lot to prove.

As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.

"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."

Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.

Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp was satisfied with the progress the Gators made in spring practice.
OK, so we started off with a softball. It wasn't much of a reach to say the Gators would change the "woe-is-me" tune that permeated through an awful 2013 season. Nevertheless, a new attitude was extremely important in setting the tone of spring practice, building team chemistry and creating an environment for learning and development.

Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.

The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.

Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense

This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.

The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.

In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.

The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.

Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense

This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Michael Taylor aims to lead by example for the Florida defense.
The names might have been slightly off, but the final outcome was as expected. Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jabari Gorman, Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis are the players to whom teammates look for tone-setting and guidance.

Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.

There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.

Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs

This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.

Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.

It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.

"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."

Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge

Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.

There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.

Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.

Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.

The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.

There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Progress. It's what Florida fans expect to see this fall. It's what they hope to see in Saturday's spring game.

Everyone is under much more scrutiny after the Gators' 4-8 record last season, but mostly the microscope will be on a brand-new offense that has been installed in just 14 spring practices. It's just one of several aspects of the scrimmage that fans and the media will be analyzing.

[+] EnlargeRoper
Jeff Barlis/ESPNAll eyes on Saturday at Florida's spring game will be on new coordinator Kurt Roper's offense.
The game, at 1:30 p.m ET at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, will be divided into four, 12-minute quarters with a running clock. Teams were drafted by honorary alumni captains on Thursday night, but fans will get to see a lot of first-team offense against first-team defense in the mix.

Here's what to watch for:

New and improved quarterback: All eyes will be on Jeff Driskel, the junior who hasn't exactly lived up to his status as the top QB prospect in 2011. He's coming off surgery and six months of rehab for a broken bone in his lower right leg. The injury, which cost him most of the 2013 season, ensures that he'll be a non-contact participant (as will all of the QBs). Driskel has had an excellent spring. He's clearly the starter and is a respected leader. His teammates have been raving about how good and comfortable he looks in an offense that is much closer to what made him a star in high school. Driskel said he just wants to show the fans that he is confident and having fun. But nothing pleases a crowd like putting points on the board. He can create a lot of goodwill if he finds receivers in stride and generally commands a smooth-looking offense.

Mr. Roper's offense: Some success by Driskel and backup quarterbacks Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg would go a long way in showing off the new scheme that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought from Duke. The No. 1 thing that fans want to see is a very different-looking offense. Roper has the potential to deliver with his no-huddle, shotgun spread attack. At the very least, the tempo will be much faster than in any of Florida's last three seasons of taking a clock-chewing, run-heavy, pro-style approach.

Young secondary: The Gators have Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Jabari Gorman at safety and little certainty throughout the rest of the defensive backfield. Yes, there is a ton of talent, but it's young and inexperienced. There are three starting jobs open because UF operates so often in a nickel formation. Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson have had their expected ups and downs in competing with junior Brian Poole for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves. Poole is also in the mix at nickel corner, along with Marcus Maye. Keanu Neal might have the edge for the other starting safety spot, but keep an eye on Nick Washington and Marcell Harris. Don't be surprised if the DBs struggle on Saturday as Florida's offense looks to win fans and influence coaches.

O-line vs. D-line: This one is a toss-up. The Gators' offensive line has not been good in pass protection, but the defensive line isn't exactly loaded with pass-rushing demons. The uptempo offense should help Florida's O-line, as there is a new emphasis on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand in three seconds. The marquee matchup to watch is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. against left tackle D.J. Humphries. They're two of the Gators' most talented players, and they've been going at each other throughout spring practice. The rest of Florida's starters are veterans, but fans might want to cover their eyes when the second units come on. Coach Will Muschamp has not been pleased with the development of his young linemen on either side of the ball.

The B-position: Tight ends and fullbacks have been largely overlooked in recent years, as blocking has been the top priority. That's changed under Roper, who said on Thursday: "It's going to be an important position and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them." Roper said he's seen growth out of veterans such as Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Hunter Joyer. He also said early enrollee freshman DeAndre Goolsby is more comfortable in a pass-catching role based on his experience in high school.

Playmakers at WR: It bears repeating that this spring has been all about the new offense. Fans were screaming for dramatic changes by the end of last season, and no position needs it more than wide receiver, where the Gators haven't had anyone crack the 600-yard mark in a season since 2009. As the spring wore on, playmakers began to emerge. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the unquestioned leader of the group and a certain starter. Sophomores Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson appear to be developing as reliable targets. Slot receivers Valdez Showers and Latroy Pittman have had solid spring camps as well. If the offense clicks, it will be a treat for fans to finally see these athletes make catches in space and show what they can do with the ball in their hands.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's a short list of true freshmen cornerbacks who have made instant impacts at Florida in recent years. And the success that Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins have had in the NFL has become a source of tremendous pride for the Gators.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star cornerback Jalen Tabor has an opportunity to play immediately for the Gators.
Last season, Vernon Hargreaves III topped all of their accomplishments when he was named first-team All-SEC as a freshman.

Could another star be around the corner (pardon the pun) in 2014?

Coach Will Muschamp set the stage when he recruited two talented cornerbacks in the Gators' 2014 class and got them on campus as early enrollees. Now that spring practice is in full swing, they're already competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves.

Jalen Tabor made a late switch to Florida from Arizona just before he arrived in January. Ranked the No. 11 overall prospect in the nation, Tabor came to the Gators with the same kind of elite pedigree as Hargreaves.

Duke Dawson had been committed to the Gators for a year when he showed up. And while he was ranked lower than Tabor in the ESPN 300 (No. 207), Dawson is no less a prime prospect in the eyes of his college coaches.

"[Tabor] and Duke Dawson both have been a quick study as far as the corner position is concerned," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "Both of them are going to be really good players. They've got to just continue.

"The willingness is there and the coachability is there with both guys. They're willing to be in the film room extra. They're willing to come up here after hours and meet with our coaches and go over things and go over schemes and watch film and learn from it. The one thing that I would say [is] that they both have a very similar ability as Vernon -- when you tell them once they get it. They don't make that mistake again."

After five practices, neither of the freshmen has looked out of place. They've won their share of battles and have been singled out for praise as well as criticism.

"Jalen's got really good length on the line of scrimmage," Muschamp said. "[He] needs to do a better job in his press technique staying on the line of scrimmage, getting his hands on people -- that's his strength. And Duke's a guy that's playing corner and nickel and right now is battling Brian Poole for the starting job at nickel."

Florida employs a lot of nickel defense using three cornerbacks. It's how Hargreaves and Poole were able to combine for 16 starts last season despite the presence of veteran cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. With those two skipping their senior seasons for the NFL draft, there are spots to fill.

Naturally Poole wants to take the next step in his career.

"Of course I want to start," said Poole, a junior who came to Florida with four-star status of his own. "I don't want to just say it's mine, but I'm working for it. It's pretty important to me because I just want to play every snap. I don't want to come on and off, on and off."

After missing just two of 25 games in his career, Poole says he's more comfortable than ever: "I don't have to learn what to do. I know what to do. Now it's just executing."

He expects his experience will give him the edge in the competition with Tabor and Dawson, but Poole still can't help being impressed with the newcomers.

"They're going to be really good," he said. "They're really learning the defense and starting to execute it well."

Well enough to start? Well enough to follow in the footsteps of Haden, Jenkins and Hargreaves?

Those are questions that will take several more months to answer.
Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With so much perfect weather in Florida, fans are expected to flock to the Gators' eight open practices, starting on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel's ability to adapt to new offensive coordinator Jeff Roper's simplified passing game will be key this spring.
Leading up to the start of camp, we've looked at the top position groups with room to improve, five players to watch as well as the most important position battles this spring. We wrap it all up with one final prediction blog -- who will be the stars of Florida's spring practice session.

Jeff Driskel and Will Grier: Quarterbacks get all the attention, and Florida's QBs will be no different. Driskel has inspired some love/hate feelings among Florida fans in his up-and-down career. This spring is his chance to reinvent himself as a take-charge veteran leader. More than any other player, Driskel can be the key to a successful spring if he commands Kurt Roper's offense, makes it look cohesive and helps his teammates do the same. Grier is that shiny, new toy that every kid wants to immediately take out of the box and play with. No one expects Grier to even challenge Driskel for the No. 1 job, but fans can't wait to see Grier's arm and how well he operates as Driskel's understudy.

Predictions: Roper's offense, with its simplified passing game, will suit Driskel and Grier perfectly. By the end of spring, fans will be treated to something they haven't seen much of in recent years -- well-timed passes on intermediate routes. Driskel, still recovering from a broken leg, won't run much at all, but Grier will show off his legs and athleticism whenever the pocket collapses.

Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane: You could say that Taylor is already a standout after starting several games in the second half of the 2013 season, but this spring is a chance for him to solidify his claim as the alpha dog of the backfield (especially with his top competition, junior Matt Jones, out for the spring due to a knee injury). Lane, a redshirt freshman with speed and a bowling ball-shaped body, reminds people of Maurice Jones-Drew. With Jones out and senior Mack Brown set as a backup, Lane will have an opportunity to burst onto the scene.

Predictions: Taylor will excite Gators fans by looking more like his father, UF great Fred Taylor. He'll improve his decision-making and blocking, show off his hands and become a weapon on swing passes. Lane will be effective as a change-of-pace back and have great success hiding behind Florida's big offensive linemen. He'll prove to be hard to tackle as well.

Alvin Bailey: Another spring, another reason for hope when it comes to the Gators' beleaguered wide receivers. Florida knows what it has in senior starter Quinton Dunbar, and the highest expectations are for the development of talented sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson. But Florida's Class of 2013 featured five WR recruits, and even though he redshirted, Bailey has the talent to explode in Roper's uptempo spread offense.

Prediction: Bailey's high school experience playing multiple positions will allow him to grasp Roper's offense better than most. He'll make headlines with his hands and shiftiness after the catch.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNJalen Tabor could find an immediate role in Florida's secondary.
The secondary: There's a lot of pressure on true freshman early enrollee Jalen Tabor, who has been touted as an elite recruit who can play immediately, much like Vernon Hargreaves III in 2013. The Gators have lost a lot of reliable players in the defensive backfield in the last two years, so young players will have to step up. Junior Brian Poole could battle with Tabor for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves, remain at nickel, or shift to safety. There's a lot of work to do here, as several players have to settle into their best position.

Predictions: Tabor will be effective with his quickness and long reach, but Poole's experience will give him the edge to take over as a starting cornerback. Spring will be just the beginning, as the battle will continue in the fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington will be a fit at nickel cornerback, and sophomore Marcus Maye will stand out as a ballhawking free safety.

The big fellas: A lot of time is spent in the spring with skill-position players working on reading blocks, running routes and refining coverages. It's hard for linemen to stand out, but more than most programs, Florida likes to put on the pads and run its first-team offense against its first-team defense. When that happens -- and fans should get to see it in the spring game on April 12 -- the best battle will be left tackle D.J. Humphries against buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. Fans can also look for one of Florida's redshirt freshmen defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, to emerge. It will be fascinating to see how they perform against 6-foot-8, 361-pound offensive tackle Trenton Brown, who will also spend some time this spring at guard. If Brown can improve his knee-bend and pad level, he could become a people-mover on the Gators offensive line.

Predictions: After some struggles in 2013, Humphries will resurface this spring. He'll show off solid technique in pass protection as well as good punch in the running game. He and the rest of the O-line will spend a lot of time with new coach Mike Summers teaching his approach. Fowler will take the next step in his development as a pocket disruptor and start finishing more plays. With senior starting DT Leon Orr out for the spring, Bostwick will emerge as gap-penetrator.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

The weeklong series wraps up with a talented but inexperienced group of safeties.

Returning starters: None.

[+] EnlargeJabari Gorman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJabari Gorman has played quite a bit in a backup role the last two seasons and could be ready to ascend into a full-time starting position.
Departures: Senior Jaylen Watkins and junior Cody Riggs were originally cornerbacks, but they converted to safety in 2013 out of need and played well. Watkins moves on to the NFL, while Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame. That leaves a big hole at safety for Florida, as both were very good in coverage and had become leaders on and off the field. Riggs, in particular, started all 12 games at safety last season and seemed well suited for the position. He had 51 tackles, fourth-most on the team.

Returning reserves: With 37 career games and five starts last season, rising senior Jabari Gorman is now the graybeard of this group. He's a solid tackler who finished sixth on the team in 2013 with 48 tackles. He also showed improvement in coverage, breaking up seven passes and intercepting one. Marcus Maye had a solid debut last year as a redshirt freshman and has the all-around tools to make plays in coverage and near the line of scrimmage. He played in all 12 games, made two starts, and recorded 16 tackles and an interception. Backup Keanu Neal got on the field immediately as a true freshman, playing in all 12 games. He was a hit on special teams, tying for the team lead with five tackles.

Newcomers: Marcell Harris arrived at Florida last summer as the No. 7-ranked safety prospect in the Class of 2013, but he redshirted in order to rehab a knee injury suffered late in his senior year of high school. Harris looks a bit like an undersized linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, but he moves well and could become a force at safety. Another freshman who redshirted last season, Nick Washington, will get a look at cornerback but has the size (6-0, 191) to make a seamless transition to safety. Freshman early enrollee Duke Dawson, like Washington, can play corner or safety. Another similar true freshman, corner/safety Quincy Wilson, arrives this summer.

What to watch: Florida always seems to get solid if not spectacular play from its safeties. Perhaps it's because head coach Will Muschamp played and coaches the position. But the competition will be wide open this spring since the Gators have lost four starters in the last two seasons. The two most experienced safeties remaining, Gorman and Maye, will likely get the first crack at starting jobs. But keep an eye on Neal, an underrated talent who got some good experience as a true freshman last season. Ditto for Harris, who will be champing at the bit to make a splash after sitting out his first year. Washington, Dawson and junior Brian Poole will have their chances at cornerback, but any of the three could ultimately prove to be better suited for the safety position and eventually win a spot there on the two-deep roster. Spring is just the beginning of what will be an extended competition.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III has the look of a future star.
The weeklong series continues with the cornerbacks, a position that has been a boon at Florida in recent years in terms of recruiting, developing college stars and ultimately producing NFL players.

Returning starters: Vernon Hargreaves III arrived with tremendous fanfare last summer and immediately became an alpha in the fall. He was easily Florida's best cornerback in coverage and was recognized as a first-team All-SEC selection. Hargreaves continued a recent string of true freshmen success stories, following in the footsteps of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Roberson.

Departures: Roberson and another junior starter, Loucheiz Purifoy, left early to enter the NFL draft where they are expected to be picked somewhere in the first three rounds. Roberson was terrific in coverage, while Purifoy relied on his elite athleticism to make plays all over the field. The Gators also graduated Jaylen Watkins, a cornerback who played out of position at safety during his senior season. Watkins, one of UF's most polished defensive backs in coverage, was a four-year player who made 28 career starts and grew into a strong leadership role. Another important departure was fourth-year junior Cody Riggs, who played at safety in 2013 but, like Watkins, was originally a cornerback. Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame, where he expects to be eligible this fall after graduating from Florida in the spring.

Returning reserves: There's only one, but he's certain to play a significant role in 2014. Rising junior Brian Poole came to UF with the pedigree of a top-10 cornerback prospect and has missed just two games in his first two seasons. He made six starts last fall as Florida's nickel cornerback, which is an important position considering how often the Gators employ five DBs. Poole is versatile, having seen time at safety as well, so there are plenty of options. He's a strong contender for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves, but Poole could also remain at nickel or shift to safety.

Newcomers: The spotlight will shine immediately on Jalen Tabor, the No. 5 cornerback prospect in the Class of 2014 who was also ranked No. 15 in the ESPN 300. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Tabor is on campus and has already commanded the attention of Florida coaches who are enamored with his range and athleticism. Similarly gifted is redshirt freshman Nick Washington, who missed his first season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Washington was a key four-star ESPN 300 recruit in Florida's 2013 class, and expectations are that his athleticism will translate into playing time this fall. Duke Dawson is another freshman already enrolled. He's a bit overshadowed by Tabor, but Dawson might fit better as a safety anyhow with his 5-11, 197-pound frame. Still, Dawson could get a long look at cornerback this spring because of his quick feet, fluid hips and natural feel for coverage techniques.

What to watch: Losing four starters -- including three juniors -- all of whom could play cornerback would likely be a staggering blow to most college teams. But at Florida, cornerback has become a glamour position and there's plenty of talent for the Gators to move forward without skipping a beat. Like Hargreaves the year before, Tabor is an elite prospect who exemplifies the current pipeline of cornerback talent that Florida is able to attract. Now if the coaching staff can coax another star performance out of a true freshman, the Gators suddenly won't look so thin at cornerback. There's plenty of talent, but not all of these players are ideally suited to be corners. One big injury could change the outlook for this position profoundly, so it is important that the Gators have a productive spring session. The top goals are to develop Tabor, see if Poole is ready for a full-time role and get reserves like Washington and Dawson ready for action. When fall camp rolls around, this group will be bolstered by three more true freshmen. J.C. Jackson, the No. 79 overall prospect in the nation, has the talent to be a natural cornerback who can compete for playing time right away. Quincy Wilson can play some cornerback but could ultimately wind up at safety. And Deiondre Porter was a high school quarterback who will get a first look at either corner or safety but seems likely to redshirt. There will undoubtedly be pressure on this group to continue the success of their predecessors, but cornerbacks at Florida play more man coverage than most. Pressure comes with the territory.

UF spring players to watch: Jalen Tabor

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With the Class of 2014 recruiting cycle in the rearview mirror, the long college football offseason is well underway. But fear not. Spring football is just around the corner.

We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

This weeklong series continues with a look at an early enrollee expected to compete for a starting job at cornerback.

CB Jalen Tabor
True freshman
6-foot-1, 188 pounds

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNCB Jalen Tabor, the No. 15 prospect in the '14 class, has a chance to make an instant impact.
Credentials: A top-5 cornerback in a loaded Class of 2014, Tabor was ranked the No. 15 overall player in the country by ESPN. The Florida coaching staff loves the length and athleticism he brings to the position and thinks Tabor will thrive in the high-pressure, man-to-man coverage their cornerbacks often employ.

How he fits: Florida desperately needed to sign an elite prospect at cornerback after two junior starters -- Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy -- decided to leave for the NFL. Two more veteran upperclassmen with experience at the position, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, are also gone. The Gators got their man in Tabor, and early impressions have calmed UF coaches. "That's what they're supposed to look like," Muschamp said on signing day. "He's got really good movement skills, and ... watching him move around has been exciting."

Who he's competing with: With so many players departing, the competition at cornerback will be wide open and intense. Starter Vernon Hargreaves III became a star as a true freshman last season, so the bar has been set high (perhaps unrealistically so) for Tabor to follow suit. And while Hargreaves might prove to be a generational talent, the rest of the competition for Tabor could be a bit easier to surpass. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington returns from a shoulder injury and joins Tabor and fellow true freshman early enrollee Duke Dawson in the cornerback battle this spring. Rising junior Brian Poole took over as Florida's starting nickel back last season and could either stay there or contend for the open cornerback job. Washington, Dawson and Poole could also see time at safety. In fall practice the Gators will add three more signees, J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter.

What needs to happen this spring: Tabor has already inspired confidence in offseason drills, but he'll need to show off his natural instincts at cornerback in spring practice in order to truly put those coaches at ease. With so many openings on UF's two-deep roster in the defensive backfield, it is essential that Tabor prove to be a quick study. It seems certain he'll play this fall, maybe even a lot if he nails down that starting job.
It's not every day that a program can lose two future early-round draft picks at a position and still be in good shape. But that's exactly where Florida sits when it looks at the cornerback position.

Before the Gators could even start thinking about spring practice, they lost starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson to the NFL draft. Both had solid careers at Florida and have been viewed as a either first- or second-round draft picks in this year's NFL draft.

But coach Will Muschamp and his staff can breathe a collective sigh of relief when they take a look at their depth chart at the corner spot this spring and beyond. For starters, third-team All-American, freshman All-American and All-SEC stud Vernon Hargreaves III is back and could be viewed as the SEC's best returning cornerback in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star CB Jalen Tabor, an early enrollee, is one reason that Florida shouldn't miss a beat in its secondary despite losing two starters to the NFL draft.
During his first year on campus, Hargreaves looked like the Gators' best corner more than a few times this season. He started the final 10 games of the season and finished the year with three interceptions and defended 14 passes, which ranked third in the league. His 11 pass breakups equaled the most by a true freshman in school history.

Hargreaves is a special talent who has the potential to be one of the nation's best cover corners this fall. So one side of the field is secured, but the Gators' corner talent goes far deeper than just Hargreaves. This is certainly not an empty cupboard in Gainesville.

Youngsters such as Brian Poole and Nick Washington give the Gators a good place to start, but veteran Cody Riggs, who played safety last season, could slide back down to corner again if needed. But it really doesn't end there for the Gators, either. ESPN 300 corners Jalen Tabor (five-star and No. 4-rated corner) and Duke Dawson (No. 16 corner) are already on campus and the early impressions are that both are doing well during offseason workouts.

Dawson had been committed to the Gators for a while before enrolling early, but getting Tabor was a major recruiting surprise. He originally committed to Arizona over Alabama at the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month before flipping to Florida shortly after. At 6-1, 188 pounds, Tabor already has good size and bulk for the position. Tabor has all the talent to play immediately for the Gators this fall. He'll likely add a little more weight, but he's already a very physical cornerback and will definitely benefit from spring practice. As will Dawson, who is a quick-twitch guy and pretty rangy at the corner position.

Florida also has a commitment from ESPN 300 athlete J.C. Jackson, who could play either corner or receiver for the Gators. The thing Florida has to do is make sure he stays committed, as Miami is making a major run at him late.

Then, there's uncommitted five-star Adoree' Jackson, who is rated as the No. 9 player nationally. Florida is one of his finalists and he's another player who could play either side of the ball. Florida's coaches would likely let him play wherever he wants with his skill set. The Gators are near the top of his list, but it doesn't look like he'll take an official visit to Gainesville, making things pretty wide open until national signing day.

Losing two of their top defensive players in 2014 isn't ideal for the Gators, but they'll be able to start rebuilding once spring practice starts. And it could only get better when summer workouts start and fall practice rolls around.

For all the trouble the Gators had in 2013 and all the questions surrounding this team in 2014, it looks like cornerback won't be something Florida frets over this fall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.

As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.

On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.

LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.

His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.

LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.

DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.

Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.

A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.

The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.
Every time the members of Florida's vaunted secondary take the field, they're in a constant competition with each other.

Whether it's counting interceptions, tackles, tipped passes or trash talk, Florida's secondary seems to always be playing its own game. Sure, they understand that every move could affect a play -- both positively or negatively -- but their never-ending competition makes them closer. And it makes them that much more dangerous to test.

"At the end of the day, that helps us get better," senior cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins said.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCB Vernon Hargreaves III is coming off am All-SEC freshman season, and coaches say he can be even better this year.
Whether it's practice or a game, they are always looking to show the other one up. It's all in fun and it drives each one to play better because they know their spots aren't permanent. There's too much depth and talent, which Watkins said makes everything that much more fun.

With possible first-rounders for next year's NFL draft in cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, the Gators own the SEC's top corner duo, but it doesn't stop there. Add freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who might be the most talented pure corner on the team, and cross-training fourth-year safeties in Watkins and Cody Riggs, and this is quite a formidable starting defensive backfield. Florida can rotate eight quality guys in the secondary in each game.

Just check out some of these numbers for Florida's secondary:

  • Florida ranks first in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 157 yards a game;
  • Through three games, the Gators have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 44.3 percent of their passes and QBs average only 4.9 yards per attempt. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 82.95, lowest in the nation, when facing Florida;
  • Florida has had an interception in six consecutive games, dating to last season;
  • Florida had seven pass breakups in last week's 31-17 victory over Tennessee, which matched the team’s total for the year entering the game and the most in a game since recording seven against South Carolina last year.

"We feel we are the best secondary in the country," Watkins said.

Five of Florida's six interceptions this season have come from the secondary, with Hargreaves leading the team with two picks. Watkins, who is second on the team with 12 tackles and has defended three passes this year, said he knew from the first day Hargreaves stepped on the practice field that he would be special. Watkins said his vertical jump blew everyone away, but it was the way he picked up the technique that had his veteran teammates turning their heads.

It took guys like Watkins weeks to get the positioning and technique down. Watkins said it only took Hargreaves "a few days."

"Once he got it, he looked like me, Marcus and Loucheiz at corner. There was no drop-off," Watkins said. "With Vernon coming in, that's just amazing because he allows me to go to safety and do a lot of different things. He's come in and stepped in and done everything the coaches have asked him. He's going to be a great player."

Now, this secondary isn't perfect. There was the 52-yard touchdown pass in the loss to Miami, and a thin secondary surrendered a late, 79-yard touchdown drive to Tennessee that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass because of a blown assignment.

But as Watkins points out, with how aggressively this unit plays, those things can happen. It isn't always positioning or picking up men that hurts this secondary, Watkins said, it's eye control. And when you're aggressive, that can hurt you.

Watkins said coach Will Muschamp, who was a defensive back at Georgia, harps on eye control and the little things. He calls out minute details that his defensive backs miss. He'll even stop guys in the hall to tell him the exact mistake he made on the exact play.

It sounds like it could get annoying, but Watkins said Muschamp's hands-on approach with the secondary is a good learning tool.

"He takes pride in coaching the little things with us," Watkins said. "It's the really small things that can lead to something big. Eye control might not catch us one time, but it can also lead to a big play."

So far, the secondary has bounced back from big plays and each week brings more development. Playing at such a high level is made easier when the guys running the show are comfortable with all the working parts.

"We all trust each other at a higher level," Watkins said. "We all have good chemistry, no matter who's on the field."

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