Editor’s note: With Florida’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, we’ll clean out the notebook this week and touch on a few remaining topics.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like star sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators' secondary is young and talented.
Unlike Hargreaves, though, most of Florida's defensive backs are unproven. There are just two upperclassmen in the group -- senior safety Jabari Gorman and junior nickel back Brian Poole. There are just two jobs nailed down -- Hargreaves at one corner spot and Gorman at one of the safety positions.
The rest of the UF defensive backfield is full of uncertainty, but loaded with potential.
It's not a bad problem to have.
"We want to get out there and find out exactly who can do what and where we’re comfortable with them playing, where they’re comfortable playing," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said during spring practice. "I don’t think by any means we’ve penciled in an answer by the end of spring break. We’ve got young guys and we’ve got to keep putting them in different situations. That’s what we’re trying to do in practice.
"They’ve responded really well. I feel good about where we’re at back there. We’re a talented group back there. It’s going to be a matter of guys keep competing and going at it. We want them to have that feeling all summer long, going into August, know that every day you’re competing for your job."
Florida coaches feel they have just enough experience and leadership to build a solid secondary. Young players such as true freshman corners Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson leaned heavily on Hargreaves, while Gorman took command of a young group of safeties.
"We have all the talent in the world but we still have to get the mental part down," Hargreaves said, "just knowing what to do, knowing your assignments. I think we’ll be all right, though."
The situation at corner is simple. Florida lacks bodies, so both freshmen can expect to play this fall.
At safety, the Gators have options galore.
"Leaders have to step forward," Gorman said. "Let those young guys believe in you. If they believe, then everybody believes and we'll all be OK."
Behind Gorman, Florida has two sophomores in Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal who got their feet wet last fall by playing in all 12 games. Maye got more minutes, starting two games, but there is a lot of excitement around Neal.
"[Neal] plays the game at a really high speed," Durkin said. "When he's on the field you feel him. You know he's out there. You can see it. He plays fast. He's very physical. He's a guy that now understands our defense better. He's been in there a little while.
"He'll absolutely be playing a number of spots for us. He's physical enough to do a lot of things for us, and he runs really well too so he has coverage ability. He has everything you're looking for in a safety."
Neal was part of Florida's sterling Class of 2013. He was one of the Gators' three safety signees, all of whom were ranked among the top -11 safety prospects in the nation. The other two -- Marcell Harris and Nick Washington -- redshirted due to injury.
"Competition will always be high," Harris said. "It’s spring and everyone is showing what they can do as a player. Coaches are always evaluating. There’s a lot of talent back there at safety. You’ve got veterans and us new guys that came in. We’re just out there competing every day and giving it our all for coach [Will] Muschamp."
It's hard to please the head coach who doubles as the safeties' position coach and has very high standards based on his own successful SEC career as a Georgia Bulldogs safety.
"Certainly the talent level is there, but we have a ways to go to shore up some things on the back end," Muschamp said after the spring game. " ... I think you go into a day like today, get some answers about where you are and how far you need to go, but more than anything sometimes for those young players to realize how far away they are. Sometimes they can get a little bit of skewed opinion of where they are."
Exactly the kind of growing pains Muschamp anticipated from his DBs. At the very least, though, the spring game gave the youngsters a chance to take a lot of reps and show what they can do.
"The secondary looked really good," starting linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal, those guys looked good all spring. Marcell really showed out today, showed what he can do. Keanu showed it last week in the scrimmage. Everybody’s doing really good back there. I really like what we have."