Gators back for more in a deep, confident secondary

April, 17, 2009
4/17/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Joe Haden remembers the feeling all too well.

He was sick to his stomach, humiliated, beaten down and feeling about as empty as he ever had after a football game.

Michigan and Chad Henne had just played target practice against the Florida secondary in the Capital One Bowl. The Gators didn't stop the Wolverines all day long in a 41-35 loss that drove home one final time what was painfully obvious to everybody all season in 2007: Florida's pass defense was utterly defenseless.

"A lot of us were back there for the first time, but it didn't make it any easier," said Haden, who started at cornerback as a true freshman. "Sometimes you've just got to take your lumps and go on. We took a lot of lumps that first year. I mean, some bad lumps. But we made it through and here we are."

In one year's time, the Gators' secondary went from the outhouse to the penthouse and might have been the best unit on the field at the end of last season in the BCS National Championship Game win over Oklahoma.

Florida surely made every play that counted -- from safety Major Wright setting the tone on the game's third play with a wicked hit along the sideline, to Haden breaking up a pass at the goal line that was intercepted by Wright just prior to halftime, to safety Ahmad Black all but sealing the game with a fourth-quarter interception.

"We knew we had the talent and were doing it in practice. But in games, I think we got nervous that first year and made too many mistakes," Haden said. "It was a shock to all of us, what happened. But we never quit believing that we could play and just had to go out and show everybody else."

Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is a believer.

"That's the position where the biggest improvement was made on our defensive football team," Strong said. "The secondary was there for us all season. We ended up with 26 interceptions, and those guys got hammered the year before. You never want to say a loss was good, but probably one of the best things that happened to them was that Michigan game. Their pride was hurt, and they went to work.

"When that ball was thrown last year, those guys felt like it was their ball ... and they all went after it."

The hardest part for Strong next season might be figuring out who to play in the secondary. The Gators are ridiculously deep.

And just because everybody who started a year ago returns doesn't mean spots are safe. The competition has been and will continue to be fierce. Safety Dorian Munroe is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and the Florida coaches think redshirt freshman cornerbacks Adrian Bushell and Jeremy Brown are both big-time talents.

Janoris Jenkins, who will miss Saturday's spring game after injuring his finger, worked some this spring at the nickel position before getting hurt. Jenkins was one of the best freshman cornerbacks in the country a year ago.

When the Gators went to five defensive backs this spring, Jenkins moved inside to nickel, with senior Wondy Pierre-Louis entering the lineup as one of the cornerbacks.

"If you blink for a minute around here, you're on the bench," said Black, who led the Gators with seven interceptions last season. "We're a tight group in the secondary, but we push each other. What you did last year was last year."

Black is the poster boy for the Florida secondary's transformation. Urban Meyer was about ready to kick him to the curb and wasn't sure Black was big enough or fast enough to play at this level, especially after Black struggled so much at cornerback that first year and barely got on the field defensively.

"It just made me go after it that much harder," said Black, who got his chance at safety after Monroe blew out his knee in the preseason a year ago. "Everybody told me I was too small or wasn't fast enough. Where I'm from, you don't need any of that to play football. You've got to have heart. That's what matters. You get out there and do it no matter how big or fast you are."

Here's the scary part for Florida opponents next season: The Gators feel like they just scratched the surface in 2008 of how good they can be on defense.

"Everybody on this defense can get better, and I think we will be better," Haden said. "The way we look at it is that only Florida can beat Florida."

Chris Low | email

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