Notebook: Mr. Versatility motivated to leave his mark

Sep 1, 2020 | 0 comments

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Florida has produced a boatload of elite defensive backs over the past 15 years or so. Players such as Joe Haden, Major Wright, Janoris Jenkins, Matt Elam, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor, Brian Poole, Keanu NealQuincy Wilson, and CJ Henderson have helped UF stake its claim to the DBU title.

Redshirt junior cornerback Marco Wilson wants to be considered part of that elite group when his college career is over.

“I think about that every day I go out to practice,” Wilson said. “I know there’s a lot of great guys that came here, and, when I leave, I want to be one of those guys that are talked about. So, I just want to make sure I do the things necessary to make sure that happens when I’m gone.”

Wilson tied for second on the team with three interceptions in 2019 after leading the team with 10 pass breakups as a freshman in 2017. He’s a long, physical defender who excels in man coverage and is adequate against the run.

Perhaps his best trait, however, is his versatility. He moved to STAR, a hybrid nickelback/linebacker position, for the final four games of 2019 and solidified one of the weakest spots on the defense.

“He’s probably the most versatile player that I’ve had from a standpoint of being able to play corner/STAR position, and that really creates value for our team, for himself,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s an excellent STAR. When you talk about a guy that can be instinctive, a guy that can cover, he’s got physicality.

“You can match him up on a premier guy whether he’s in the slot or outside. Those are the kind of things that we can do with him, and we’ll work those in.”

Wilson chose to return to UF with hopes of improving his draft stock after an up-and-down campaign. As if he didn’t have enough motivation, he was left off of the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List that was released in July. He felt snubbed.

“It puts a huge chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I actually prefer it that way. I don’t want to be comfortable and relaxed and be the guy that everybody’s talking about because sometimes that puts people’s mindset [where] it doesn’t need to be. It just makes me want to keep grinding, keep going hard. I looked at that list, and I respect everybody that’s on there, but seeing some of the names, I know a lot of people on there aren’t on my level of play. You’ve just got to take it for what it is.

“At the end of the day, I’m not here for rewards. I’m here to play with my team and win games. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just trying to level up my game and just get to the next level and just dominate at anything I do.”

Replacing Reese

While the Gators return one of the most talented defenses in the SEC, they still have some massive shoes to fill.

Gone are Jonathan Greenard’s league-leading 9.5 sacks and Jabari Zuniga’s 18.5 career sacks. Henderson’s elite coverage skills are now a couple of hours up the road in Jacksonville.

Not to be overlooked is the departure of middle linebacker David Reese. While Reese went undrafted and struggled in coverage because of his lack of speed, he was the rock in the middle of UF’s defense for most of the past four years. He finished his career with 322 tackles and always seemed to produce two or three game-changing run stuffs in short-yardage situations every year. He helped get everybody on the same page before the snap and helped smooth the transition between coaching staffs after the 2017 season.

“Anytime you lose a guy like David who’s been a veteran, has played a lot of snaps here and is a quarterback, I mean, that’s a situation you’ve really got to work at,” Grantham said.

Redshirt junior Ventrell Miller will be expected to pick up where Reese left off from a leadership standpoint. He’s the most experienced returning linebacker with 25 career games played and 11 starts in 2019. He finished second on the team with 55 stops last year.

He’s more athletic and versatile than Reese, as evidenced by his three sacks and two pass breakups. He played the weakside linebacker spot but could slide inside this season.

Miller said Reese was a great mentor to him, and he’s excited about the challenge of filling his void in UF’s defense.

“I felt like he was a student of the game,” Miller said. “If he found out something, he’d teach me stuff, and I’m looking forward to pass that on as I learn.

“It’s definitely sad losing a great brother, but I’m embracing the role, doing everything I can to not only get myself prepared but my teammates as well.”

In preparation for his increased role, Miller spent his vast amount of free time during the pandemic getting his body right through nutrition and strength and conditioning workouts and trying to learn more about the game so that he can play more instinctively this season. His defensive coordinator has liked what he’s seen so far.

“Been very impressed with Ventrell Miller and his leadership role,” Grantham said. “Ventrell’s done a good job of losing a little bit of weight. You can see it athletically the way he’s playing.”

Miller feels confident after receiving the first significant playing time of his career in 2019 and looks to take things to the next level in 2020.

“I feel like the more reps you get, the more times you go out there and play these different teams, the more confidence you’ll have,” he said. “So, I’m definitely looking forward to the season and the things I can accomplish for myself and as a team.”

Building the perfect STAR

One of the big mysteries surrounding Florida’s defense heading into this season is what they will do at STAR, perhaps the most crucial position in Grantham’s scheme.

Trey Dean started 2019 at STAR but struggled to make open-field tackles and was moved back outside to corner for the final four games. He’s receiving reps at safety this fall. Wilson is needed on the outside with Henderson’s departure.

Some of the names that have been thrown out by fans and media this offseason as possible fits for the role include Chester Kimbrough, Tre’Vez Johnson, and Amari Burney.

What is Grantham looking for at the position? A little bit of everything, it turns out.

“You’ve got to have the ability to have some coverage ability to you, you’ve got to have some stoutness that you can play the blocks as far as the [bubble screens] and things like that because that’s really the modern-day sweep,” Grantham said. “Things happen a little quicker inside because you’re closer to the ball. Generally speaking, anytime you get closer to the ball, things move faster. So, your instincts and your reaction times have got to be really good. You’ve got to be a good blitzer because we’re going to bring you at times, and, when that happens, you’re going to be in a one-on-one matchup, and you’ve got to be able to handle that.”

Who that player (or players) ends up being could change from game-to-game based on the opponent. Against the more physical running teams, the STAR position might resemble more of a strongside linebacker role. Against the more dynamic passing teams, it might look more like an extra cornerback position.

“It can depend upon personnel, obviously,” Grantham said. “[It] can depend upon the type of player in the slot, the kind of offense you’re seeing. What are they doing? Are they a heavy run team? Are they a throw team? So that stuff does kind of dictate the kind of guy that you play there. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a guy that has some cover ability, that has some blitz ability and some ability to play the run. At times he’s like a linebacker; at times he’s like a corner.”

While Wilson is practicing primarily at cornerback this fall, he’s still receiving some reps at STAR and is willing to move back there if needed.

“I’m just ready to play wherever my team needs me,” Wilson said. “Last year they needed me at STAR, so I played at STAR. Wherever the team needs me, that’s where I’m going to be.”

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