Gators secondary looking to add the snap to defense in 2020

Florida lost three key pieces of their 2019 defense to the NFL this spring. While cornerback CJ Henderson was first off the board, it was the Gators defensive front that earned most of the plaudits last year. With no more Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard bookending the defensive front, there will be more onus on an experienced secondary group to lead the unit. 

That should be no problem for such a talent laden set of defensive backs. Florida has continually sought to be amongst the contenders for the tag of ‘DBU’. While they don’t possess an elite playmaker like Shaun Wade (Ohio State), Derek Stingley (LSU) or Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) they make  up for it in depth. 

With the College Football season set to be consigned to conference play only, Florida will have plenty to do to be in Playoff contention. Head Coach Dan Mullen is now in his third year and is confident that he can build a legitimate National Champion. In order to compete with Alabama, LSU and Auburn, Florida will need their defense to be robust. Let’s take a look at the players that will patrol the second level.

Experienced Wilson returns to lead the pack

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Marco Wilson has NFL pedigree. His brother Quincy, was a standout for the Gators, resulting in him being a second round pick for the Colts. Marco may have garnered similar interest had he declared for the 2020 NFL Draft. In returning for his senior year Wilson is hoping he can boost his stock by starring in one of the SEC’s top teams.

The main question for Wilson in 2020 will be where is his best position? In base defense he will clearly be one of the two starting corners however near the end of the season, he shifted to nickel when there were extra defensive backs on the field.

At 6’0, Wilson may be considered slightly undersized for some schemes but his ability inside means he could command a starting spot in the NFL immediately. He is a solid tackler and dependable in run support. A former track athlete, Wilson has the speed to hang in man coverage but also excels in zone.

Take the play below, Wilson is in zone coverage and despite taking the outside route, with his eyes on the QB, he spots the throw. He uses his physical nature to jump the route and spin the ball out of the receiver’s hands to his Florida teammate.

The biggest concern for Wilson is likely to be his injury history. He tore his ACL in high school only to repeat the same injury in his sophomore year in Florida. If Wilson adds another healthy season his draft stock has the potential to rocket.

Davis sets the beat in the backfield

Shawn Davis grabbed the headlines in Week 4 of the 2019 season with a couple of interceptions against Kentucky. Davis’ upward trajectory continued and he is the tone setter on the Gators defense. Despite being only 5’11 and a slim build, Davis moves around the field like a heat seeking missile. When he hits the target he does so with a thump.

That’s not to say Davis should be pigeon-holed as a box safety. He is just as at home as a deep lying, single-high safety. Having originally been recruited as a cornerback, Davis’ playmaking ability when the ball is in the air can still be seen. His pick against Auburn is a prime example of the athleticism Davis possesses.

If Davis wants to make himself into an NFL-ready safety he will have to sharpen his raw ability. Davis does everything at full speed and this can cause him issues. He sniffs out danger but in his haste he can take bad angles to the ball carrier, forcing him to miss tackles. Being able to temper his instincts as well as becoming more reliable at the tackle point will be big factors in deciding his future at the next level.

Youthful depth should prove valuable

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Stepping in for CJ Henderson won’t be easy but Florida already feel like they have the next man up in sophomore Kaiir Elam. By the end of 2019, the four star recruit had made a starting berth his own. At 6’2, 187lbs, Elam is ideally sized and looks set to become a true lockdown corner. He is physical in man coverage and grabbed two picks last year.

Junior Trey Dean III should be the third starting cornerback when the Gators are in nickel. Dean is taller at 6’3 but equally as versatile. Having taken snaps at both outside corner and nickel, it will be intriguing to see where he lines up this season. While Wilson and Elam will be starters, Dean’s length could mean Wilson moves inside. However, one of Dean’s best skills is as a blitzer from the slot. Dean shows speed and awareness seeking out the ball carrier in the backfield.

Experienced heads round out the safety spot

While Shawn Davis is a dynamic playmaker who can shift around the formation, Florida has good depth at the safety position. Both Brad Stewart Jr and Donovan Stiner are returning for their senior year. Stewart is likely to be found closer to the action, utilising his tackling ability and zone coverage skills. 

Even though Stiner is projected to be a backup on the OurLads depth chart, his four interceptions last year show he will have a part to play. Comfortable as the deep lying single safety, his deep coverage ability will free up Davis and the other playmakers ahead of him.

Is Mullen building a contender?

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With College Football likely to be trimmed to conference play only (best case scenario), Florida faces a tough task to come out of the ultra competitive SEC unscathed. That said, Head Coach Dan Mullen is assembling a talented side to make that challenge. There should be no concern over the secondary which should ask plenty of questions of the new faces at QB in the conference. It will be a difficult ask for the likes of Mac Jones, Jamie Newman and Bo Nix to unpick the back end of the Gators defense.

Should Kyle Trask and the offense also live up to preseason hype it would be no surprise for Florida to make a serious claim for a playoff berth.

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Rory-Joe Daniels

Cfb contributor

formerly writing for the inside zone, rory will be breaking down college tape and keeping you up-to-date with all things CFB for the touchdown. an avid bengals fan, you can also find some of rory’s work at