GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp is faithful to his talking points.
Be it on his Gator Club circuit, at Southeastern Conference Media Days, spinning through the ESPN “Car Wash” or maybe at his favorite local restaurant, the Florida coach has a list of areas he hits on when asked about his 2013 team.
Without fail, Muschamp makes mention of his concerns up the middle of a defense that said goodbye to some very good players, starting with the interior line, inside linebackers, and a position that is very near and dear to his heart because he played it in college.
“Yeah, we’ve heard about it,” redshirt freshman Marcus Maye said. “We lost a couple good ones back there.”
First-team All-American Matt Elam was selected in the first round by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and immediately assigned the task of replacing out-going free agent and franchise stalwart Ed Reed. Josh Evans was taken in the sixth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Those are two big cleats to fill for a unit that ranked second in the SEC in total defense and No. 1 in pass efficiency after allowing just seven touchdown passes all season. So Muschamp clearly is justified in his concerns as preseason camp began Friday.
“I bet he’ll be less concerned at the end of camp,” junior Cody Riggs predicted.
That’s very likely, actually. While the Gators said goodbye to two outstanding players and respected leaders, the secondary just might be the deepest area on this UF football team, with 10 guys who have played significant downs in past seasons, plus a few talented newcomers ready to roll into the mix.
Better yet, the bulk of them are interchangeable.
Take Jaylen Watkins. As a junior, he started 11 games at cornerback last season, but will slide over to one of the two safety spots having cross-trained at both the strong and free positions during the spring and offseason workouts.
Watkins actually played safety in four games during 2012.
“The transition is not something I minded doing,” he said. “For someone who hadn’t played the position previously, it probably would be harder. But I know the defense and have been in those situations. I played there last year. It’s not a big deal to me.”
As long they embrace the physicality that comes with being a safety, it shouldn’t be a problem for any of the safety candidates.
UF’s scheme may vary from base coverage to nickel and dime, but no matter what the Gators are playing, safeties will be in the middle of the action, as far as taking on running backs and lead blockers; sometimes at the point of attack, sometimes at the second level when the runner has a team of steam after breaking the line.
“You have a big back coming at you,” said Muschamp, who was a solid safety for four seasons at Georgia. “You have to make the tackle in the holes, as opposed to space plays where you’re able to leverage and get in a profile tackle situation, which is a side tackle situation that you use on the sideline in a lot of situations at the corner as opposed to being down the middle somewhere.”
It’s a different world versus playing the edge, but each of the Gators who figure in the safety mix understand the responsibilities and look forward to being charged with them.
Watkins is expected to be matched back there with either Riggs (who broke his foot in Week 2 at Texas A&M and missed the rest of the season), Maye (who made a nice impression on the staff in the spring), junior Jabari Gorman (12 games last season, with an interception in the big win over South Carolina) or third-year sophomore Valdez Showers (who played in 11 games last season, though mostly on special teams).
True freshmen Marcell Harris, whose father Mike started as a UF safety in the 1990s, and Keanu Neal could also find themselves in the mix.
“We’re blessed with a lot of talent in the secondary,” Riggs said. “We’ll see who’s out there, but it may just depend on who we’re playing.”
The Gators had one of the nation’s top defenses last season, finishing second only to two-time national champion Alabama. One of the reasons UF ranked No. 2 in scoring (allowing just 14.5 points per game) was its league-best 20 interceptions which led to an overall plus-16 turnover ratio.
Worth noting: Elam and Evans had seven of those interceptions.
Muschamp and new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have made turnover margin a point emphasis again this year.
“We just have to pick up where we left off back there,” said junior cornerback Marcus Roberson, who will team with Loucheiz Purifoy at the corner positions. “We got the guys to do it.”
Lots of ‘em.
Friday they start scrambling for pecking order.
“Every one of us wants to be out there, but that’s what practice is for,” Showers said. “You have to prove yourself and earn the job.”