Florida will have to count on freshmen corners

Jul 31, 2019 | 0 comments

For the Gators’ run of lockdown cornerback play to continue in 2019, a trio of freshmen are going to have to grow up in a hurry.

After practicing on a non-contact basis in the spring, redshirt sophomore Marco Wilson is in his first week of practice as a full participant following a season-ending ACL injury in 2018. While cornerbacks coach Torrian Gray said Wilson is doing “unbelievable” so far, you never know how his knee will hold up as the grind of a long season sets in. Even if he stays healthy, the Gators like to rotate corners and play in a lot of nickel and dime formations, so depth is crucial.

As coach Dan Mullen pointed out on Media Day last week, they could move guys like Trey Dean and C.J. McWilliams around if they need to in order to get their best five or six defensive backs on the field. But, he also said that would cause depth issues at other spots and limit the amount of rotating they could do.

With John Huggins yet to report to fall camp as he deals with a family matter, McWilliams has practiced almost exclusively at nickel so far, leaving freshmen Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough as the primary reserves at the outside corner spots.

Gray said having nothing but freshmen behind Wilson and CJ Henderson isn’t ideal, but it was the hand he was dealt, and he’s going to try to make the most of it. The freshmen have improved each practice but not as quickly as he would like. He wants to see better attention to detail, urgency and focus from the group.

“Game experience is one thing, but learning how to practice, learning how to prepare in the meetings, learning how to take your notes from the meeting room to the field, all those things,” he said. “We’re throwing some volume at them as far as what the defenses do, but it’s enough overlap to where we need to be more consistent.

“They’re starting to understand it, but it’s something that they don’t know until they get more experience just yet.”

Each of the three came to Florida with differing levels of fanfare and different skillsets.

Elam, a top-50 prospect in high school, is a long, physical corner who a lot of people expect to be the next in line at UF and a high draft pick three years from now. He arrived at UF at the start of Summer A and went through the summer strength and conditioning program. He already appears to have risen to the top of the pecking order among the freshmen.

Hill, an early enrollee, was known in high school for his quickness and ball skills. He’s coming off a torn ACL he suffered in September and missed spring practice, but Gray said he doesn’t anticipate him being limited at all this season.

Then there’s Kimbrough, the lowest rated of three. He’s undersized at just 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds, but he’s split second team reps with Hill in the limited portions of practice that have been open to the media so far.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said having to rely heavily on freshmen at a particular position is going to become more commonplace with the increased utilization of the transfer portal. He pointed out that last year, they had to rely on Trey Dean as a freshman. He took some lumps early in the season but developed into a solid player by the end of the season. He expects this year’s group to do the same.

“With the guys that have come in at corner this year, we're going to roll those guys, let them compete and find ways to get them a part of what we're doing,” he said. “And communicate with them as far as what they understand, what they know and try to bring them along.”

The trio made a good first impression on their older teammates over the summer. Safety Shawn Davis said he liked the way they worked hard from the beginning, never complained about anything and never gave up during the intense off-season workouts. Wilson said he was impressed with how quickly they picked up the defensive scheme.

“It’s a very complex playbook,” Wilson said. “When me and CJ first got here, our playbook was pretty easy, so that wasn’t something we had to worry about. They’ve picked it up pretty well, and they’re learning it well. They can call out what we’re doing in meetings, so that’s really good.”

If the freshmen don’t get up to speed quickly, they won’t be able to blame it on a lack of guidance from the veterans. Mullen and others have praised Henderson throughout fall camp for his leadership. He might be one of the quietest players on the team, but he has a strong work ethic and is often among the last players to exit the practice facility.

“Every time we do a workout, when the workout's over, he's always working, or practice is over, working on extra technique and pulling young guys along with him,” Mullen said. “So, I think that's real positive for us moving forward.”

It also helps that they’re going against arguably one of the conference’s top wide receiving corps in practice. Gray said there is a delicate balancing act to it. You don’t want to let mistakes go uncorrected and accept getting beat, but you don’t want to beat them down too much and damage their confidence either.

He said the key for the freshmen is going to be fine-tuning the small details of playing the position and practicing with a sense of urgency. In high school, they could get away with poor fundamentals because they were so much more talented than the receivers lined up across from them. In college, one seemingly small slip-up could be the difference between an interception and giving up a touchdown.

“I'm not quite sure they understand it, but I'm going to do my best to make them understand it,” he said.

Gray said he’s not sure how many of the freshmen will have to play major roles this year, as injuries can always change things. He’s focused on getting all three of them up to speed so they can play in the SEC.

“Those young guys got plenty of reps that they can learn and draw from, and we’re going to need them to be ready at some point,” he said.

Tags: Player

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