When the Gators released their first unofficial depth chart of the season on Monday, there was a huge shocker in the middle of the defense. Redshirt senior C.J. McWilliams was listed as the starter at STAR, the Gators’ version of the nickelback.
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McWilliams started two games and played in seven others in 2018 at cornerback. The results were mixed at best, and he gave up a couple of touchdowns against Georgia that made fans irate. His playing time decreased for the remainder of the season after that performance, and he missed all of 2019 with a torn Achilles.
McWilliams wasn’t given much of a chance to play this season by fans and pundits. The Gators have loaded up in the secondary in the past two recruiting classes, and players such as Amari Burney, Tre’Vez Johnson, and Chester Kimbrough were expected to compete for playing time at STAR. Plus, fans may never forgive him for contributing heavily to that loss to Georgia.
All of these factors made everyone do a double-take after glancing at the depth chart.
His defensive coordinator likes what he’s seen from him this offseason and believes he’s earned the right to play.
“The guy’s really busted his tail,” coach Todd Grantham said. “He's worked hard. He's been healthy through this whole thing. He's really done what we've asked. He's done a nice job, so he'll be a part of our roster, our players, and he'll be able to contribute to what we do. He's really earned it. He's done a good job of making himself into a guy that we feel that we can count on in certain situations."
Tight end Kyle Pitts, who has matched up some with McWilliams in practice, said the performance McWilliams turned in against Georgia two years ago wasn’t indicative of the type of player he is.
“Everybody was just bashing him, but that’s not the real C.J,” Pitts said. “The real C.J. is how he’s playing now, 100 percent. He’s sticking, he’s hitting people hard in the open. He can guard. He can do everything that when he came here he’s doing now. I think, like I said, first game, everybody’s going to be kind of shocked seeing him out there making plays.”
Young defensive tackles ready to contribute
Another surprise on the depth chart was the absence of senior nose tackle Kyree Campbell, who’s team-best streak of 24 consecutive starts will apparently come to an end on Saturday.
Rumors have circulated regarding Campbell’s status on the team, but Grantham declined to comment on his absence from the depth chart. For what it’s worth, he is listed on the roster.
In his place, Tedarrell Slaton will slide over from the three-technique position to the nose, and Zachary Carter will see more extensive action inside.
Campbell’s absence also clears a path for a pair of freshmen to receive additional playing time.
Former five-star recruit Gervon Dexter has the physical tools at 6-foot-6 and 308 pounds, and he’s done a good job of adjusting to the college level this fall, Grantham said.
“With the [walkthroughs] as far as just T-shirts and learning and stuff like that, he applied himself and got some background that way,” he said. “And as we put on the pads, his physicality showed up. His ability to utilize his skillset, hold the point, play with power, that's shown up, and I think as we move through the season you always need guys upfront.
“I think anytime you can play a lot of guys in the front, it's a good thing, and right now, he's earned the right to play with his play and his practice, and we'll just put him in there and let him roll."
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Jaelin Humphries is trying to work his way into the rotation after playing in just one game last year. An injury that he suffered before he enrolled limited him in fall camp last year and put him behind the eight ball for most of the season. He’s now healthy and will be counted on at some point this season.
“Jaelen is a guy that has done a good job of progressing himself, getting in the kind of shape that we feel like he should be in,” Grantham said. “He's a strong, powerful guy. Kind of a guy that can give you some quality stuff on say some two-down snaps, meaning first, second down and do those kind of things. So, he understands that role, and quite frankly in the scrimmages, when he played, he improved from scrimmage one to scrimmage two.
“He's a guy that we are going to count on to give us some type of rotational relief at some point, just a matter of when; we're not quite sure yet. But, he's done a good job in putting himself in a position that we're going to count on him at some point."
Tackling a key to victory
Tackling is always a concern in early-season games, and the Gators have had their share of struggles the past two years. In the second game of 2018, Kentucky took advantage of some poor angles and missed tackles to amass more than 300 rushing yards. In the 2019 opener, Florida let Miami hang around longer than they should’ve by missing 20 or more tackles and allowing a 50-yard touchdown run.
Ole Miss’ offense is predicated around speed and making people miss, making tackling even more imperative on Saturday.
"I think you've got to be really impressed with the speed of their receivers and their length,” Grantham said. “When you look at their slot receiver, [Elijah Moore], he's a guy that he's quick, he's shifty, kind of similar to [Kadarius Toney] for them and what they would do with him. He's very effective in yards after the catch, so when he gets the ball on a two-to-three-yard flat route, he can make guys miss and make it a double-digit play.
“Then you look at the running backs, they're young players, but they were really effective last year, and they can make guys miss. You've got to run through guys."
As is usually the case in fall practices, they haven’t practiced tackling to the ground much, but Grantham is confident that they are prepared for the challenge. Still, it will be different in a game.
“The angles change,” he said. “So, that’s why it’s real critical in practice that you’re always practicing full speed, you’re practicing hard, the scout team’s giving you a hard look because you’ve got to get – it’s really the angles, and it’s being able to get in those angles and get into a hitting position that you can get the guy down.
“From our standpoint, tackling’s going to be real critical because we have been limited somewhat in our tackling. So, it’s real critical that you’re closing down, we’re compressing the ball, that we’re squeezing the air out of it and we make sure that we get guys down. That’s going to be a real critical factor, and we’ve emphasized that throughout the course of this week.”
McPherson looking to improve
Through two seasons, Evan McPherson has made 34 of 38 field goals. (Actually, he’s made 35 of 38 according to everybody but the official standing under the right upright in the south end zone against Kentucky in 2018). That 89.5 percent conversion rate is the best in school history among kickers with at least 35 attempts.
Still, he believes there is room for improvement.
“For a lot of people, they see that I don’t really have that much room to improve on, but for me, I see a lot,” he said. “I see some inconsistencies with the ball-striking, so kind of over the summer, I’ve been working on striking it more consistently pretty much anytime. It’s kind of just repetition. Whenever I go out to kick, I’m making sure that I’m kicking every ball the same, and if I’m not, I kind of figure out what I’m doing wrong and kind of focus in on that point.”
McPherson must adjust to working with a new long-snapper and a new holder after a limited offseason. Punter Jacob Finn is expected to be the holder, and either Brett DioGuardi or Marco Ortiz will handle the long-snapping responsibilities. They tried to get together a few days per week this offseason to build a rhythm with each other and build a sense of comfort working with each other.
“I was trying to get work with both Jacob [Finn] and Jeremy [Crawshaw] this summer with holding,” McPherson said. “It kind of just boils down to who I felt more comfortable with and who I think could get the job done, that I would trust. I think to get that confidence was just kind of repeatability. We would go out 3-4 times a week and work together and make sure we were kind of rolling going into the season.”
McPherson’s career-long field goal make to this point was from 50 yards out against Florida State last season, but he’s willing to expand his range if Dan Mullen gives him the opportunity.
“I’m comfortable with whatever Coach Mullen throws me out there to kick,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, anything crazy from perfect conditions with wind behind your back, you might can mess with 65 or something like that. You’d have to have perfect conditions with some wind.”