GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In his first season as Florida’s head coach, Will Muschamp would have preferred to send his defense onto the field in the season opener Sept. 3 with Janoris Jenkins as one of the Gators’ starting cornerbacks.
That won’t happen after Jenkins and the Gators parted ways in April due to Jenkins’ off-the-field issues. Considered a potential first-round draft pick as a junior as UF, Jenkins is now at North Alabama trying to take advantage of his second chance.
Meanwhile, the Gators have moved on and despite the loss of Jenkins and senior safety Ahmad Black – his exit was much more celebratory when he returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown to earn Outback Bowl MVP honors – the secondary has a good mix of veterans and newcomers that provide the Gators with ample options.
Perhaps the player with the most potential is sophomore strong safety Matt Elam, one of the top defensive back recruits in 2010. Elam (5-10, 199) is a physical player with more size than Black, who led the Gators with 108 tackles and five interceptions last season.
Elam played in all 13 games as a true freshman and finished with 22 tackles. One of 37 players named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, Elam could provide the secondary a huge boost if he can replace some of Black’s play-making ability.
The competition for playing time at the other safety position includes junior Josh Evans (6-1, 195) and sophomore Josh Shaw (6-3, 186). Shaw moved from cornerback in the spring and could continue to play both positions.
With Jenkins no longer around, Jeremy Brown is the most experienced starting cornerback returning. A redshirt junior who missed back-to-back seasons due to chronic back problems, Brown started 10 games in 2010. He had three interceptions and stayed healthy until a hamstring injury cost him the final two games of the regular season.
Moses Jenkins (6-3, 182) was granted a sixth year of eligibility and could see a lot of playing time in Janoris Jenkins’ former spot. Jenkins has played 29 games over the past four seasons and is the team’s biggest corner. He has started three games in his career.
Sophomore Cody Riggs (5-9, 166) is expected to be in the mix, too. Riggs had an interception in the spring game and played regularly as a true freshman. Another sophomore, Jaylen Watkins, is expected to push for playing time also.
One reason the loss of Janoris Jenkins might not have has big an impact as many expect is the incoming class of defensive backs. In Muschamp’s first recruiting class, the Gators racked up stellar defensive backs as much as any position.
The newcomers include De'Ante "Pop" Saunders (5-8, 173). Saunders enrolled in January and arrived from DeLand High School with strong credentials as playmaker and versatile athlete who also returned kicks in high school and played quarterback.
He was named the Orlando Sentinel's All-Central Florida Defensive Player of the Year as a junior in 2009.
“I really like recruiting defensive backs that have played quarterback because they have to make critical decisions,’’ Muschamp said. “And the critical decisions you make on the back end sometimes can cost you a football game. I like the fact this guy has had to make decisions with the ball in his hands.’’
The other defensive backs in the 2011 signing class are Jabari Gorman from Miami’s Monsignor Pace, Chris Johnson of Ocala Trinity Catholic, Loucheiz Purifoy of Pensacola Pine Forest, Marcus Roberson of Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, and Valdez Showers of Madison Heights, Mich.
“Really excited about bringing the guys we brought in,’’ Muschamp said. “We've got more length at the corner position.’’
Roberson may be the most polished of the group. His late addition gave the 2011 class a strong boost at the end, his recruitment led by defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, a Miami native who played at Auburn and started his coaching career as a graduate assistant there during Muschamp’s time as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator.
Muschamp will be heavily involved in the defense, teaming with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in running the unit.
Quinn shared his some of his philosophy regarding the secondary this spring, impressed by the speed and athleticism of the group.
“I think we would be more man-to-man oriented first,’’ he said. “There's certainly going to be some times where we will play some two-deep and split-safety defenses just to match up for receivers and that kind of stuff.
“We want to certainly take away what they do best, but when you see our guys run outside, it certainly lends itself to playing some man-to-man.’’
Editor’s note: GatorZone.com senior writer Scott Carter will take a look at each unit on the Gators football team in the days leading up to the start of practice.