Florida Gators: Jaylen Watkins
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
Todd Gurley's impact
Thanks in part to injuries up front, they weren't as dominant in their last two games, both losses, allowing 175 rushing yards to LSU and 205 to Missouri. But with a few key faces returning up front -- including defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and possibly outside linebacker Ronald Powell -- Florida should pose a major test to Gurley and Georgia's rushing attack.
Georgia's depleted receiving corps vs. Florida secondary
By this point, anybody who follows Georgia football with even a passing interest knows about the debilitating injuries that struck the Bulldogs' offense over the last month. They have been especially debilitating for a once-explosive receiving corps, which lost Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending knee injuries and Michael Bennett and Chris Conley to shorter-term ailments.
Conley is still out, but Bennett should be back from a two-game absence on Saturday, possibly bringing some productivity to a group that has struggled mightily in recent weeks. The Bulldogs passed for just 114 yards in a loss to Vanderbilt, with senior quarterback Aaron Murray failing to complete a pass of at least 20 yards for the first time in his career.
Facing Florida's aggressive secondary is no treat for the Bulldogs' passing game. The Gators surrendered an uncharacteristic 295 passing yards to Missouri in their last game, but with ball hawks like Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and freshman Vernon Hargreaves III leading the charge, Florida leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in pass defense at 172.4 ypg.
Murray's composure vs. Gators
Murray largely put to rest questions about whether he was a big-game player in nearly flawless performances against South Carolina and LSU earlier this season. A composed performance against Florida on Saturday would place an additional nail in that particular coffin. The Florida native has never gotten off to a great start against the Gators, starting with his very first play as a freshman in 2010 -- when he threw an interception to Florida's Janoris Jenkins. Murray led a comeback to force overtime in that game but threw a back-breaking interception that helped Florida win 34-31 in the extra session. Georgia won each of the last two meetings against the Gators, but Murray was fairly shaky in both, going a combined 27-for-58 for 319 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Georgia has a chance to build its first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89, but it likely will need Murray to play his best game yet against the Gators for the streak to remain intact.
Will Mike Bobo "let it rip?"
With Gurley and Bennett back in the lineup, Georgia's offense should have some more punch on Saturday, and that will be necessary against Florida's tough defense. Bobo likely must break out of the conservatism that set in with multiple offensive weapons sidelined and show some aggressiveness if Georgia is to break through against the Gators.
Florida's pass rushers vs. Georgia offensive line
If Powell is able to play on Saturday, that would provide a huge shot in the arm for Florida's pass rush. Powell has Jarvis Jones-like ability, but injuries have been a regular problem for the junior. Even if he doesn't play, Georgia's offensive line -- which has dealt with consistency issues for much of the season -- will have its hands full with buck Dante Fowler Jr., who almost single-handedly kept the Gators afloat against Missouri even when the offense was performing pitifully.
Fowler leads the team with three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. He hasn't gotten a ton of help from his comrades up front -- Florida is tied for 10th in the league with 11 sacks -- but getting some line depth back should help. Georgia's line has struggled against speedy edge rushers, particularly in the Clemson and Missouri losses, so keep an eye on the edges Saturday.
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.
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."
Starting left guard Max Garcia (back) and reserve offensive lineman Trip Thurman (shoulder) returned to practice on Monday, but the Gators lost two more players and are still waiting on word on two others.
Fullback Hunter Joyer suffered a hamstring pull on Sunday, and UF coach Will Muschamp said Joyer will be out at least 10 days. Cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins suffered a sprained foot on Sunday and will miss the rest of the week. Muschamp said he should return next week.
In addition, starting right guard Jon Halapio is still out with a torn pectoral muscle. Halapio has been participating in individual drills but won’t be cleared for contact for another seven to 10 days, Muschamp said.
Running back Matt Jones has begun cardio workouts in his return from a viral infection, but Muschamp said the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is still out indefinitely.
"At some point, whether it’s the first week or the second week or as you head into the open week, he’s going to play for us this year," Muschamp said of Jones. "We’re a little bit in uncharted waters coming into having the type of infection he had, and then you’re talking about the heat we’re in and that sort of thing. I think we need to be really careful right now that we don’t have a relapse of the situation."
For the season opener against Toledo, anyway.
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.
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida begins August camp on Friday. Here’s a primer to get you ready:
Three questions the Gators must answer in camp
Can the receivers contribute? It must sound like a broken record, but the development of the receivers is the key to the season. They haven’t been very good for the past three seasons, and that really hurt the Gators in 2012 because of quarterback Jeff Driskel’s inexperience. H-back/wildcat QB Trey Burton, with 69 career catches, will line up at receiver. That will help, but he’s not a downfield threat or someone that scares a secondary. Redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar and sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman must become consistent with their routes, adjustments and blitz reads. At least two of the five freshmen -- including early enrollee Demarcus Robinson -- have to become significant parts of the rotation, too. New receivers coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience and two former pupils in the NFL (Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson), should make a difference. But remember, a chef is only as good as his ingredients.
Can the linebackers hold up their end? The Gators are loaded in the secondary and with pass rushers, and the defensive line should be fine. The question mark on defense is at linebacker, especially with starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison suspended for the first two games. There’s little doubt that Morrison is going to be a big-time player, but there are questions at every other spot. Buck/strongside linebacker Ronald Powell is coming back from a torn ACL and the top two candidates at weakside linebacker (Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor) have been role players throughout their careers. Taylor will likely start in the middle while Morrison is out. That’s a steep drop-off from Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and the Gators need to find playmakers. Don’t be surprised if freshman Daniel McMillian takes over as the starter on the weak side by the middle of the season.
Will either kicker turn out to be reliable? It’s unfair to expect Austin Hardin or Brad Phillips to have the same kind of impact as Caleb Sturgis. He was the best kicker in school history and was accurate from long range. But it isn’t unreasonable to ask either of those guys to be consistent in the 40-yard range, and neither was during spring practice. It’s a battle that will continue throughout camp -- and possibly into the season. Sturgis consistently bailed out the offense in 2012, and the Gators won’t have that luxury if the offense struggles again (see receivers above).
Three position battles to watch
Tight end: Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor are competing for playing time. The group struggled during the spring and Burton has a slim lead. Thompson was more of a blocker in high school, but his size makes him an intriguing option in the middle of the field and the red zone. He’s a better blocker than any of the other tight ends and could win the job if he can show some consistency and prove he’s a reliable receiver. Westbrook is more of a blocker and Taylor is a flex tight end with potential, but the coaching staff isn’t happy with his toughness. There’s not a lot of experience here -- they’ve combined for four catches for 17 yards in their careers -- and it’s unlikely any can be the weapon in the passing game that Jordan Reed was the past two seasons (73 catches, 866 yards, 5 TDs).
Safety: If the season started today, cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs would be the starters. That’s not a bad thing because both are solid players who understand the defense and won’t give up big plays. But what is a concern is that none of the other safeties showed enough consistency in the spring to earn one of the spots. Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman and Valdez Showers have four weeks to prove they can get the job done.
Three players you might not have thought to watch in camp, but really should
Bryan Cox: A redshirt freshman defensive end, he showed flashes of potential in the spring and made a few plays during the final scrimmage. He’s playing behind Jonathan Bullard, so he gets overlooked, but he’s got good size (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and athleticism and could be a breakout player on defense.
Gideon Ajagbe: Hunter Joyer was the only fullback on the roster until the staff moved Ajagbe and redshirt freshman safety Rhaheim Ledbetter there in the spring because the staff was worried about overworking Joyer during the season. Ajagbe adjusted well and should give Joyer some valuable rest and therefore reduce his risk of injury.
Chris Wilkes: It was obvious that the staff wasn’t happy with backup quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, which was one of the reasons UF added Wilkes. He was an Ole Miss signee in 2008 but instead chose to sign a baseball contract with the San Diego Padres. Wilkes enrolled in May and missed spring practice and hasn’t played football in five years, but he’s a former pro athlete and should at least push Mornhinweg and Murphy a bit.
1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jr., Alabama: He might be the nation's best safety prospect with his range, speed, athleticism and physical nature. Clinton-Dix has a great football mind when he's on the field and isn't afraid to play high or in the box. What makes him so good is that he's not only a ballhawk and a banger, but he's excellent in coverage, too. He had five interceptions and defended nine passes last season.
2. Craig Loston, Sr., LSU: It has taken some time for Loston to come into his own at LSU, but he is in position to be one of the nation's best. It's not like he ever lacked the talent, but his work ethic needed some improvement. Having more responsibility thrown his way helped turn his game up and he started to play like the top-flight athlete LSU's coaching staff had been waiting for. He's a ballhawk and can lay the lumber with ease.
4. Nickoe Whitley, Sr., Mississippi State: He's basically the grandpa of Mississippi State's secondary, but he certainly doesn't play like an old man. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on Mississippi State's team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play threat at the safety spot and covers a lot of ground with his speed.
5. Byron Moore, Sr., Tennessee: His team-high five interceptions were probably overlooked because of how poorly Tennessee's defense played, but Moore was a heck of a player. Moore, who was second on the team with 86 tackles last year, is extremely versatile as well. He started the first three games of the season at strong safety before moving over to free safety after Brian Randolph got hurt. He started the final nine games there.
6. Jaylen Watkins, Sr., Florida: He's played in 36 games with 19 starts, but the majority of his work has come at cornerback. But Watkins is talented enough and knows Florida's defense well enough that moving to safety wasn't an issue. He played there at the end of last season and cross-trained there all year. He's a physical player, has good coverage skills and should be able to fly all over the field.
7. Demetruce McNeal, Sr., Auburn: There weren't many positive things to say about Auburn's defense last year, but McNeal was pretty impressive. Off-field issues this spring made his status for the fall uncertain, but now that he's cleared everything up, he should be good to go. He notched a team-high 53 solo tackles last year and was tied for first with seven tackles for loss. Anytime you have a safety who isn't afraid to get rough up front, that's a very good thing.
8. Trae Elston, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels expected him to play early last year and he didn't disappoint. He played in 12 games and made nine starts as the Rebels' Rover. Elston led the team with six pass breakups, had a sack and recovered a fumble last year. Elston is a big-hitting safety who can play all over. He'll get in the box and cover guys. He's a very dynamic athlete in the Rebels' defense.
9. T.J. Gurley, So., South Carolina: A knee injury cut his 2012 season short, but even with only eight games under his belt he was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team. South Carolina's coaches are extremely excited about his potential and think he could have been a tremendous player if he was able to finish last season. He didn't go through spring, but should be 100 percent this fall. Gurley has the skill to make plays all over the field and be a solid ballhawk.
10. Tray Matthews, Fr., Georgia: No, he hasn't played a down in college, but he could be one of the most physically gifted safeties in the SEC right now. He made an immediate impression on his coaches, especially defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this spring, and was an easy choice for the starting free safety spot. He's an excellent tackler, lays bone-crushing hits and has tremendous field range.
Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:
1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.
3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.
4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.
6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.
9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.
10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.
11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.
12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.
13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
No. 31 Cody Riggs
Redshirt junior defensive back
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No. 24 Brian Poole
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No. 21 Jabari Gorman
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No. 20 Marcus Maye
Redshirt freshman safety
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No. 14 Jaylen Watkins
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No. 10 Valdez Showers
Redshirt sophomore safety
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