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Gators senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins is the most-experienced player returning among the defensive backs.

Friday March 8, 2013Gators Spring Preview: Defensive Backs

Gainesville, Fla.

Gators senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins is the most-experienced player returning among the defensive backs.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

Editorís note: GatorZone.com is taking a look at each position group heading into the start of spring practice March 13. This story in the series focuses on the defensive backs.

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As a former starting safety at Georgia, Gators head coach Will Muschamp works closely with defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson in coaching the secondary.

The two will be spending a lot of time evaluating players this spring.

"There will be a lot of good competition,'' Muschamp said.

Florida's secondary has depth and talent, but the Gators lost a ton of experience at safety following the departures of starters Matt Elam and Josh Evans. Elam was an All-American as a junior and opted to declare for the NFL Draft after the Sugar Bowl.

Evans improved significantly the past two years and had the best season of his career as senior. He is considered a potential late-round pick in April's draft.

Still, while there are holes to fill in the back end of the secondary, the cornerback position returns strong with Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins providing a solid anchor.

Roberson, a member of Muschamp's first recruiting class in 2011, has started on and off since arriving on campus. He led the Gators with 12 pass break-ups last season and forced his first career fumble in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville.

Watkins, a senior, has played in 36 games over his career and intercepted three passes last year. Watkins has also spent time at safety but when Cody Riggs suffered a season-ending foot injury in the SEC opener at Texas A&M last season, Watkins locked down the cornerback spot opposite Loucheiz Purifoy.

Purifoy could still figure into the plans at cornerback as well but Muschamp said recently that the Gators want to take an extended look at Purifoy playing receiver this spring. Purifoy lined up at receiver occasionally last year and started at corner and receiver against Florida State, the first UF player to start on offense and defense in the same game in a decade.

Riggs is once again healthy and figures to be in the running for significant playing time in the secondary. A redshirt junior, Riggs has 14 career starts and could see more time at safety this spring as the Gators search for replacements for Elam and Evans.

While D.J. Durkin replaces Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator, the Gators plan to continue running the same pro-style defensive system that Muschamp and Quinn implemented in 2011. That means versatility is at a premium among the defensive backs.

"Last year we played 75 percent nickel or dime,'' Muschamp said. "The SAM [strong-side] linebacker position in our defense is becoming extinct in a certain regard."

Sixth-year senior Jeremy Brown also returns at cornerback. Brown's promising career has been derailed by injuries, but he provides experience in nickel-and-dime packages when healthy.

Sophomore Brian Poole is another player to watch this spring. Poole (5-foot-10, 206 pounds) came in as one of the nation's top cornerback recruits and played in 12 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams and as Elam's backup in Florida's dime formation.

There are several young players in the competition for playing time at safety this spring, including junior Jabari Gorman, redshirt freshman Marcus Maye and redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers.

Muschamp said all three players would have an opportunity to impress and recently complimented Maye (5-11, 203) for his performance in the Gators' Sugar Bowl practices.

Gorman (5-10, 188) is the most experienced of the trio. He has 10 career tackles in 25 games, playing primarily on special teams. Gorman did have an interception in Florida's 44-11 victory over South Carolina last season.

The Gators don't have any defensive backs among their eight early enrollees, but when fall camp starts in August, four more players will join the fray: Vernon Hargreaves III (5-11, 181), Marcell Harris (6-2, 220), Keanu Neal (6-0, 204) and Nick Washington (5-11, 170).

Hargreaves and Washington are projected corners, with Harris and Neal playing safety in high school.

Recruiting analysts considered Hargreaves one of the top playmakers in Florida's 2013 recruiting class.

"The guy has been around the game a lot and really gets the game,'' Muschamp said of Hargreaves, whose father is longtime college assistant in his first year at Houston. "He's very mature, very driven.† So a guy you would certainly point to, a guy who will have some opportunities as a freshman to contribute and how much will be up to him."

 

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