Former Player Feedback: Florida has a top five secondary in the nation

Jul 20, 2019 | 0 comments

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As the Florida Gators players prepare for the fall, we look back over the spring practices and Orange and Blue Game with former players as each recaps what he saw from his respective positional unit and what he expects from them this fall in our annual F-Club series.


F-Club Series: QB | RB  | WR | OL | TE | DL | LB | DB

While he never made an all-conference team or got drafted, perhaps no Gator defensive back in recent years has as interesting a story as Kyle Jackson. Jackson joined the Gators in 2004 as the No. 2 ranked safety prospect in the nation, according to Rivals, over his career, he appeared in 49 games and started 17, including playing on Florida’s 2006 National Championship team.

He recorded 81 tackles and four interceptions.

As a freshman, Jackson became the first UF true freshman to intercept two passes in the same game since 1998 when he did so against South Carolina. He tied for the team lead with two interceptions as a sophomore in 2005.

During his career, he suffered a back injury that required surgery, and he was told he would never play football again. Jackson defied the odds and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a short period of time before he was cut, ending his career for good.

The incredible healing he experienced inspired him to become a chiropractor. He graduated from the Palmer College of Chiropractic in 2012, and he currently works as the co-executive director/case manager for Physical Healthcare of Jacksonville.

Jackson took some time to talk with Inside the Gators about the Gators’ secondary, his thoughts on Todd Grantham’s defense, his expectations for the 2019 Gators and more.

What are your overall thoughts on the Gators’ defensive backs heading into the season?

“Phenomenal. I know losing Chauncey Gardner’s going to kind of be a big hit to the secondary as far as leadership. However, that’s going to give one of these young guys like Marco Wilson or CJ Henderson a chance to step up and become the leader of the secondary.”

CJ Henderson is regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the country. What is it about him that stands out to you?

“I think it’s his closing speed. If you watch how he plays, he can kind of bait the ball, almost like Deion Sanders in a sense that the quarterback thinks the receiver’s open, and then, when the ball’s in the air, he’s able to close the gap on the speed to either make a pass breakup or even an interception.”

What stands out about Marco Wilson?

Marco Wilson’s a tough guy. Obviously, dealing with his injuries, he’s able to bounce back. You can tell he’s kind of had a little bit of some coaching from his brother or it just kind of runs in the family. He’s able to watch his older brother. But, you can just tell he’s a tough corner and very smart. He’s always at the right place, right time, where he needs to be. And very physical.”

How long do you think it will take him to knock the rust off after not playing for nearly a year?

“Typically, with an injury like that, usually about a game, a full game. So, hopefully by the end of the Miami game, he’ll be able to knock that off. And once he understands that with an injury like that – a lot of players are scared to go out there and test the rehab that they’ve put in for that year – but if he can just go out there – and I know it’s hard; it’s easier said than done – if he can play as hard as he did last year before that injury and act like the injury never even happened, he’ll be fine.”

Do you like Trey Dean moving inside to nickel this year?

“I’ve been thinking about that. I like Trey Dean a lot and where he kind of struggled, even last year, was a little bit of the one-on-ones that he got pushed into. Whenever they were in like a Cover Two or even a Cover Three, he was in like a zone coverage, he played well. But, when it was a one-on-one type deal, he ended up getting beat and/or getting penalized. And that comes just through experience. But, with moving him to nickel, I think he won’t be put in those one-on-one type of positions as much, or, even if he is, it will be a bigger slot receiver. It won’t be such a speedy receiver.”

Where do you think he fits best long-term?

“Just by watching him play, he’s got the talent to play all three positions. He literally could play corner if you needed him to, I could see him at nickel obviously. I think if he gets his blitzing on – obviously with Coach [Todd] Grantham, he’s going to set up some awesome blitzes – I think Dean will do well with the nickel. But, I also think if he puts a little bit of weight on, he could become a very good strong safety.”

How important is it to have somebody like him who can play every position in the secondary?

“It’s very important because if any of those guys go down, he can step right in and play any of those positions. He can play right corner, left corner, strong safety, nickel. So, it’s very important, making yourself versatile like that, specifically for moving on to the next level. When you get to the NFL, when you get a guy that’s that versatile, it’s tough to pass up on when they can play all those positions.”

How concerned are you about the depth at corner with the transfers they’ve had this offseason? They’re probably going to have to rely on at least one freshman.

“I’m not too concerned about it. Obviously, you always worry about injuries. You don’t want to dwell on injuries in a perfect world. I think we’ll be OK. You know what, with [Brad] Stewart back there at free safety, if he can stay healthy, it really truly doesn’t matter what corner comes in, whether it’s a true freshman or not. And the way the coaching staff’s going to have them – you got to understand, I played under Dan Mullen and even most of the offensive coaches – the way that they’re going to have these guys prepared, it does not matter if you’re a freshman or if you’re a senior, you’re going to know what your role is on the field.”

What’s the most difficult adjustment going from high school to college for a defensive back?

“I would probably say the speed of the game. Meaning, when I was in high school and playing, in high school, there’s usually one maybe two guys on the team that are fast enough and agile enough and athletic enough to beat you. Whereas in college, every single one of the players on the field – whether it’s a slot receiver, a wide out, a running back – they can all get you into open space with the athleticism and speed and potentially beat you. So, it’s the speed of the game. Once that speed of the game starts to slow down, that’s when you start to see these kids make big plays.”

How do you see the competition for the other safety spot beside Brad Stewart playing out?

“I’ll be honest, and this is just my personal opinion, I like Shawn Davis over [Jeawon] Taylor. I know they’re trying to put Taylor in there, or at least I think that’s what they’re doing, but just last year, he seemed like he was out of place. That might’ve been a new defense, might’ve been thrown in a little bit too quick due to injuries, I don’t know what was going on with Taylor. But, Shawn Davis came in towards the end of the season and even though it might be short, he looked very promising.”

What do you like about Brad Stewart?

“His range. He’s tall, he’s big, he’s fast. If you watch him in a game, it looks like he takes control back there, as he should as a free safety. He’s basically the quarterback, making sure everyone’s in the right position. He’s very rangy.”

The safeties made some big plays last year, but there also seemed to be some inconsistencies. What’s the key to the safeties becoming more consistent?

“Well, it was the injuries. What was happening and again what it looked like is when Stewart went down, what happened, to me, we were trying to find who could play free [safety], who could play strong [safety] when we went into a nickel package because that led Chauncey Gardner down to the nickel. And so we were left with two safeties that hadn’t really played much, and they just kind of looked confused back there. I don’t think that will happen this year because this will be the second year now under the same defensive coordinator, the same defensive plays and, again, I think the competition is just a little bit better. They’re going to be pushing each other.”

How do you think UF’s defensive backs stack up in the SEC and nationally?

“I mean, one of the top five [nationally]. Obviously, I don’t know every team’s defensive backs, but the two best corners in the SEC, if not in the United States, with Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson, I mean, you can’t not put those two guys in the top-5 when healthy.”

What are some of the unit’s weaknesses, if there are any?

“It would be the inconsistency as far as being on the same page. I want to say it was the Kentucky game, I was at the Kentucky game and on the sideline. So, one of the big plays happened, and you can tell the safety threw his arm up at the corner, and the corner turned around and threw his arm up at the safety. Obviously, you can’t tell exactly what they’re saying, but, being in a position like that, the safety’s saying ‘I thought you had him’ and the corner’s looking at the safety saying ‘I thought you had him.’ So, you can tell the communication isn’t where it needs to be. If they can tighten up the communication, the athleticism is on point; they’ve got it. But, it’s going to be the communication. They’re all going to have to be on the same page.”

What are your thoughts on Dan Mullen as a head coach after one season?

“Great. I already knew. I know what kind of man Coach Mullen is. Like I said, he was there three years while I was playing safety. We would always have the Best Fridays in Football, and what Urban [Meyer] had us do was the coaches would have to sit or eat dinner at a different table [than their position]. Coach Mullen always sat at the defensive back’s table because Coach Meyer didn’t want the coaches talking about football. Once we were done with preparation on Friday after our walkthrough, it was just Best Fridays in Football. Time to relax and just kind of chill. He didn’t want the coaches talking about football to the players, and so Coach Mullen sat at our table every Friday night before a game, and he sat right in between me and Tony Joiner. We got to know Coach Mullen very, very well as a person but obviously as a coach. He’s doing great things. I knew he was going to change the culture around. He knows how to win. He’s proved it, and he’s just got to keep pushing. Can’t let off the gas.”

What do you like about Todd Grantham’s defense?

“I like all the blitzing. Coach [Charlie] Strong and [Greg] Mattison, when I was there, that’s what we did, we blitzed. We were always in a fire zone, and we were sending pressure from all different places. If it wasn’t the strong safety or the nickel coming down, it was the corner blitz. If it wasn’t that, it was our linebackers blitzing. So, we were always throwing a blitz at the offense. I think Todd Grantham does a great job at that.”

Looking at the whole team now, what do you think are the biggest keys to success this season?

“Offensive line. We’re young there, and they’re going to take us as far as we want to go. If we win or lose, it’s going to be because of the offensive line because I think as a whole on defense, I know we lost quite a few stars, but we still got our middle linebacker with [David] Reese still back there. I know we just lost an outside linebacker (the other David Reese) due to an Achilles tear, but I think the defense, specifically the secondary’s going to hold the defense together. And our offense, I mean, our receivers are great, athletic, tall, fast. Our running backs are great. I think Feleipe’s [Franks] finally picked up on the offense. He looks like he’s taken command of the offense. But, I’m just a little nervous about our offensive line being so young. But, I know Coach [John] Hevesy, I know him well too. He’ll have them ready.”

What are your expectations for what this team can accomplish this season?

“They should win the big games. When I talk about the big games, we always talk about the three big ones obviously being Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State. And then after that, LSU and Auburn, we’ve got to push through those, and, if we do that, we’ll be pretty much set up to where we need to be.”


Inside the Gators F-Club Positional Breakdown series isn't associated with the official University of Florida F-Club

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