SEC: Jaylen Watkins
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:
2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.
Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs
Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe
Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.
Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.
Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?
Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.
Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.
ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins
Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins
Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
UF has been one of the most consistent talent pipelines in the past two decades, as evidenced by 23 first-round picks since 1995. The Gators have had at least one first-rounder in all but one (2012) of the past seven years. But the 2014 draft could very well be another exception.
Friday night's second and third rounds could be slim pickings as well for Florida. But Saturday? Hold on tight, because as many as seven former Gators could be selected in Rounds 4-7.
Here's a breakdown of each of this year's prospects and a prediction for where he'll end up.
6-foot-1¾, 288 pounds
No. 5-ranked defensive tackle
One of the best pass-rushing tackles available, Easley's stock has been hurt by torn ACLs in both knees. He's just over six months removed from surgery to repair his right knee and suffered the left knee injury less than two years prior. Still, there's no questioning Easley's game tape and the way he played after recovering from his first knee injury. Easley uses a lightning-quick first step to shoot gaps and disrupt the pass and run games. His camp is hearing some draft buzz about climbing into the first round. Prediction: Second round
Marcus Roberson, 6-0¼, 191
No. 11-ranked cornerback
Like Easley, Roberson has some skills and attributes in high demand but has to deal with teams' concerns about his history of injuries. Roberson is the perfect size for today's cornerback -- long and rangy. Throughout his three years at Florida, he consistently displayed good instincts, especially in the man coverage that UF plays so much. But Roberson missed three games in his freshman season when he fractured a vertebra in his neck. He missed five games last fall with knee and ankle injuries. Running a 4.61 40-time didn't help, either. Prediction: Third round
Jaylen Watkins, 5-11½, 194
No. 15-ranked cornerback
The brother of Sammy Watkins, the draft's top wide receiver prospect, Jaylen is less well-known to casual observers. But a rock-solid career for the Gators and the versatility to play corner and safety has made this Watkins a draft sleeper. Jaylen improved each season and became a quiet leader at Florida. Head coach Will Muschamp also called him "a core special teams guy." Watkins really boosted his draft stock when he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, just a hair faster than his already famous brother. Prediction: Fourth round
Ronald Powell, 6-3[, 237
No. 18-ranked outside linebacker
Once the No. 1 overall high school recruit in the nation, Powell's career at Florida never matched that lofty status and was largely derailed by a torn ACL that required two surgeries and more than a year off. Before the injury, he spent a lot of time at defensive end but didn't turn into the pass-rusher everyone envisioned. Afterward, he began to transition to linebacker and showed promise. Powell's measurables are the biggest reason he'll get drafted. His 4.65 time in the 40 was fourth-fastest among linebackers at the combine. Prediction: Sixth round
Loucheiz Purifoy, 5-11½, 190
No. 26-ranked cornerback
How far will he fall? All the way out of the draft? Those are the questions after Purifoy's disastrous offseason. Once a projected first-round pick, Purifoy's stock started dropping when game tape revealed a lack of coverage instincts. Then his official combine time of 4.61 in the 40 dropped him further. Finally, a Gainesville drug arrest that was quashed raised serious concerns about Purifoy's off-the-field behavior. Despite all of that, he's an elite athlete who could develop and still has a good chance of being picked. Prediction: Sixth round
Jonotthan Harrison, 6-3½, 304
No. 8-ranked center
A three-year starter at a demanding position, Harrison has good height, weight and speed for a center and has worked hard to improve his technique in run- and pass-blocking. He did a good job making pass protection calls for the offensive line and became a respected leader for the Gators. Prediction: Sixth round
Jon Halapio, 6-3½, 323
No. 15-ranked guard
One of the toughest players at Florida in the past four seasons, Halapio regularly played through injuries and started 43 of 51 games across a solid career. He's better as a run blocker than he is in pass protection, but Halapio has the size, strength and intelligence teams are looking for. Prediction: Sixth round
Solomon Patton, 5-8½, 178
No. 42-ranked wide receiver
After a quiet three years, Patton had a standout senior season in which he combined great speed and playmaking ability to be the Gators' best receiver. Also a special-teams ace with return skills, Patton hopes to be drafted by a team that needs all of those things. Prediction: Seventh round
Trey Burton, 6-2[, 224
No. 13-ranked tight end
Burton played every skill position on offense in his four years at UF. He ran well (4.62) as a tight end at the NFL draft combine, but at his size he's just not going to be considered for that position. Versatility and competitiveness are Burton's calling cards, which could earn him a look as an H-back. Prediction: Seventh round
One player, however, was spared his coach's ire -- Jabari Gorman -- and it's no coincidence he's the only senior in Florida's secondary.
“He has done a nice job," Muschamp said. "The others, I can’t say that. But he has done a nice job. He understands the importance of communication on the back end. We've just got to do a better job at understanding that a mistake there is normally not good for the Gators. That’s where we’ve got to tie some things up."
Understandably, Muschamp can be tough on his safeties. He holds them to a high standard, one that has been achieved in recent years.
Florida's starters two seasons ago, Matt Elam and Josh Evans, are playing in the NFL. Jaylen Watkins, one of UF's starling safeties last season, expects to follow their footsteps in the NFL draft this May.
The Gators lost their other starting safety from 2013, Cody Riggs, who is transferring to Notre Dame after he graduates this spring. That's a clean sweep of starting safeties from Florida's secondary in back-to-back season.
To Gorman, it's an opportunity. His time has come.
"Especially at the safety position, you've got to grow up," Gorman said. "You've got to be able to be vocal. In that position you have to develop into a leader because so much is needed from you. You're the quarterback of the defense.
"What I do, I try to let these kids know that it's never personal with Coach. It's always for the better, to make you a better player, make you faster and more instinctive."
Getting better is what Gorman has done in three years at UF. He had a breakout season last year with 48 tackles (sixth most on the team), seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.
"Jabari’s very smart, he’s a guy that gets it," Muschamp said. "He understands and learns well. He’s seen the game. It’s slowed down tremendously for him over the years. He’s played a lot of football for us, played well for us last year. I’ve been very pleased with his spring to his point through four days and the offseason program."
After playing right away on special teams and as a reserve in 2011, Gorman's time at Florida has grown short.
"Yeah man, I say it's the blink of an eye," he said. "I still remember the first day I came to campus. What I want to do is help my team to go out with a bang, be the best we can be."
Gorman easily lists the names of his classmates, fellow seniors who want badly to erase the blemish of last year's 4-8 record.
"We've got a lot of seniors that have been here, gone through a process," he said. "We went through struggles at times, went through the good times, and we just want to leave on a good note. I think it's more important to us than anybody to go out and win."
So what else would you expect but heavy rainfall throughout Monday's pro day with more than 50 representatives from all 32 NFL teams in attendance?
After lifting in the weight room, the event shifted to the track inside the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The three cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- drew a lot of attention.
Roberson and Purifoy, two of UF's top prospects, each posted disappointing 40-yard dash times of 4.61 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. They were able to show slight improvement Monday with unofficial times of 4.59 and 4.53 seconds, respectively. Watkins, who is still recovering from a sprained Achilles tendon, did not run the 40-yard dash (he posted a 4.41 at the NFL combine) but did participate in drills.
"I think all three will translate very well to the next level,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Jaylen's a guy that can play multiple positions. He can play safety, he can play nickel, he can play dime, he can play corner. He's a core special-teams guy for us over the years. So, a guy that can do a lot of things for you. Marcus is a guy that's got really good instincts in coverage, especially in man coverage. He can get his hands on people, which in the NFL the rules are a little different. But you've got to win on the line of scrimmage, and he can do that. He's a guy that's got really good ball skills down the field. Loucheiz is a guy that can give you some special teams, a really good kickoff coverage guy, a guy that's got some return skills, but another guy that can win on the line of scrimmage and has got great, long speed down the field. So I think each player gives you a little something different of what you're looking for."
Another Florida prospect who could be selected in the early rounds, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, was on hand but did not participate as he continues to rehabilitate a torn ACL he suffered early last fall.
"He's going to work out [at UF] on April 18," Muschamp said. "Now we've not set that date. He and I talked this morning and didn't feel like he was ready. I told him, 'If you're not ready, don't work. You wait until you're ready to go cut it loose and give them a good day's work.' So I want to say April 18, but that's not been totally decided yet."
DE/LB Ronald Powell, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, TE Trey Burton, DL Damien Jacobs, OL Kyle Koehne and LB Darrin Kitchens also took part in the drills.
Halapio, who missed the first two games of his senior season with a torn pectoral muscle, said he is healthy and proved it in front of scouts by benching 225 pounds 32 times, which would have ranked among the top 10 for offensive linemen at the combine.
"People really underestimate what he did this past year," Muschamp said. "There's a lot of young men that would have probably taken a redshirt and had surgery. We gave him several options and he just said, 'I'm going to tape it up and play.'”
Patton is a prospect who might be slightly off of the radar of some teams, as he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. Monday at UF, he ran an unofficial best of 4.31 in the 40 and performed well in drills, catching most passes in the rain away from his body.
Muschamp believes Patton will make an NFL roster.
"There's no question he's going to find a role," Muschamp said. "[He's] a guy that can play in the slot and has return skill, big-time kickoff return and great special-teams guy -- one of the better kickoff cover guys I've been around."
Overall, the soggy conditions did not put too much of a damper on Florida's pro day.
"We play football in the rain," Muschamp said with a grin. "I think those guys got a lot of comments from coaches and scouts about how our guys going out and competing. They didn't bellyache about it. They go out there and compete, and that's what you want to see."
Watkins ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash and also did 22 reps on the bench press. He played both cornerback and safety for the Gators and also worked some as their nickelback. He doesn't have ideal size to play safety in the NFL (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) but certainly helped himself with his impressive 40 time. When you take into account that he's moved around and played different positions in the secondary, his draft stock coming out of the combine is probably a lot better than anybody would have expected.
On the flip side, his two more heralded cornerback colleagues at Florida -- Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson -- didn't fare as well at the combine. They both ran surprisingly slow 4.61 times in the 40-yard dash. The 5-11, 190-pound Purifoy only did six reps on the bench press, although he did have a vertical jump of 35.5 inches. At one point, Purifoy was thought to be a potential first-round selection. But with a shaky combine performance, he will likely slip into the middle rounds.
Roberson's stock took a hit as well. He did just eight reps on the bench and posted a 37.5-inch vertical leap. The other big question with Roberson is injuries. He missed four games last season.
Among the other SEC players who turned heads with their play last week and potentially helped their NFL stock, according to Scouts Inc., were Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins. LSU safety Craig Loston and Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had interceptions in the game. Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood had a 24-yard touchdown catch.
Two SEC players who didn't necessarily help their stock last week, according to the Scouts Inc. staff, were Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. Sam had a sack in the game, but relied too much on his speed rush. There are also concerns as to whether or not he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Matthews had a nice 33-yard catch in the game, but the knock on him during the week was that he dropped too many passes and struggled to make contested catches.
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
Whether it's counting interceptions, tackles, tipped passes or trash talk, Florida's secondary seems to always be playing its own game. Sure, they understand that every move could affect a play -- both positively or negatively -- but their never-ending competition makes them closer. And it makes them that much more dangerous to test.
"At the end of the day, that helps us get better," senior cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins said.
With possible first-rounders for next year's NFL draft in cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, the Gators own the SEC's top corner duo, but it doesn't stop there. Add freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who might be the most talented pure corner on the team, and cross-training fourth-year safeties in Watkins and Cody Riggs, and this is quite a formidable starting defensive backfield. Florida can rotate eight quality guys in the secondary in each game.
Just check out some of these numbers for Florida's secondary:
- Florida ranks first in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 157 yards a game;
- Through three games, the Gators have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 44.3 percent of their passes and QBs average only 4.9 yards per attempt. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 82.95, lowest in the nation, when facing Florida;
- Florida has had an interception in six consecutive games, dating to last season;
- Florida had seven pass breakups in last week's 31-17 victory over Tennessee, which matched the team’s total for the year entering the game and the most in a game since recording seven against South Carolina last year.
"We feel we are the best secondary in the country," Watkins said.
Five of Florida's six interceptions this season have come from the secondary, with Hargreaves leading the team with two picks. Watkins, who is second on the team with 12 tackles and has defended three passes this year, said he knew from the first day Hargreaves stepped on the practice field that he would be special. Watkins said his vertical jump blew everyone away, but it was the way he picked up the technique that had his veteran teammates turning their heads.
It took guys like Watkins weeks to get the positioning and technique down. Watkins said it only took Hargreaves "a few days."
"Once he got it, he looked like me, Marcus and Loucheiz at corner. There was no drop-off," Watkins said. "With Vernon coming in, that's just amazing because he allows me to go to safety and do a lot of different things. He's come in and stepped in and done everything the coaches have asked him. He's going to be a great player."
Now, this secondary isn't perfect. There was the 52-yard touchdown pass in the loss to Miami, and a thin secondary surrendered a late, 79-yard touchdown drive to Tennessee that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass because of a blown assignment.
But as Watkins points out, with how aggressively this unit plays, those things can happen. It isn't always positioning or picking up men that hurts this secondary, Watkins said, it's eye control. And when you're aggressive, that can hurt you.
Watkins said coach Will Muschamp, who was a defensive back at Georgia, harps on eye control and the little things. He calls out minute details that his defensive backs miss. He'll even stop guys in the hall to tell him the exact mistake he made on the exact play.
It sounds like it could get annoying, but Watkins said Muschamp's hands-on approach with the secondary is a good learning tool.
"He takes pride in coaching the little things with us," Watkins said. "It's the really small things that can lead to something big. Eye control might not catch us one time, but it can also lead to a big play."
So far, the secondary has bounced back from big plays and each week brings more development. Playing at such a high level is made easier when the guys running the show are comfortable with all the working parts.
"We all trust each other at a higher level," Watkins said. "We all have good chemistry, no matter who's on the field."
1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jr., Alabama: He might be the nation's best safety prospect with his range, speed, athleticism and physical nature. Clinton-Dix has a great football mind when he's on the field and isn't afraid to play high or in the box. What makes him so good is that he's not only a ballhawk and a banger, but he's excellent in coverage, too. He had five interceptions and defended nine passes last season.
2. Craig Loston, Sr., LSU: It has taken some time for Loston to come into his own at LSU, but he is in position to be one of the nation's best. It's not like he ever lacked the talent, but his work ethic needed some improvement. Having more responsibility thrown his way helped turn his game up and he started to play like the top-flight athlete LSU's coaching staff had been waiting for. He's a ballhawk and can lay the lumber with ease.
4. Nickoe Whitley, Sr., Mississippi State: He's basically the grandpa of Mississippi State's secondary, but he certainly doesn't play like an old man. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on Mississippi State's team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play threat at the safety spot and covers a lot of ground with his speed.
5. Byron Moore, Sr., Tennessee: His team-high five interceptions were probably overlooked because of how poorly Tennessee's defense played, but Moore was a heck of a player. Moore, who was second on the team with 86 tackles last year, is extremely versatile as well. He started the first three games of the season at strong safety before moving over to free safety after Brian Randolph got hurt. He started the final nine games there.
6. Jaylen Watkins, Sr., Florida: He's played in 36 games with 19 starts, but the majority of his work has come at cornerback. But Watkins is talented enough and knows Florida's defense well enough that moving to safety wasn't an issue. He played there at the end of last season and cross-trained there all year. He's a physical player, has good coverage skills and should be able to fly all over the field.
7. Demetruce McNeal, Sr., Auburn: There weren't many positive things to say about Auburn's defense last year, but McNeal was pretty impressive. Off-field issues this spring made his status for the fall uncertain, but now that he's cleared everything up, he should be good to go. He notched a team-high 53 solo tackles last year and was tied for first with seven tackles for loss. Anytime you have a safety who isn't afraid to get rough up front, that's a very good thing.
8. Trae Elston, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels expected him to play early last year and he didn't disappoint. He played in 12 games and made nine starts as the Rebels' Rover. Elston led the team with six pass breakups, had a sack and recovered a fumble last year. Elston is a big-hitting safety who can play all over. He'll get in the box and cover guys. He's a very dynamic athlete in the Rebels' defense.
9. T.J. Gurley, So., South Carolina: A knee injury cut his 2012 season short, but even with only eight games under his belt he was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team. South Carolina's coaches are extremely excited about his potential and think he could have been a tremendous player if he was able to finish last season. He didn't go through spring, but should be 100 percent this fall. Gurley has the skill to make plays all over the field and be a solid ballhawk.
10. Tray Matthews, Fr., Georgia: No, he hasn't played a down in college, but he could be one of the most physically gifted safeties in the SEC right now. He made an immediate impression on his coaches, especially defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this spring, and was an easy choice for the starting free safety spot. He's an excellent tackler, lays bone-crushing hits and has tremendous field range.
Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:
1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.
3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.
4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.
6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.
9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.
10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.
11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.
12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.
13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
Ranking UF’s needs for 2014
1. Offensive line
Today, we're on to running backs and safeties . The interesting thing about the SEC is it's extremely deep at running back, but most of the top returning backs aren't draft eligible. No SEC backs made Kiper's top five, but Auburn rising junior Tre Mason made his "Next up" list.
Mason was Auburn's best overall player last year, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He also averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Mason should have even more room to move around in Gus Malzahn's spread offense. He has a pounding nature about him, but has the ability to break the big one and has the agility to make defenders miss at times.
Other draft-eligible running backs I'd keep an eye on in the SEC this fall:
- Jeremy Hill, LSU: Now, this one is interesting because he's dealing with legal trouble. If he makes it back to the playing field, he'll be one of the best running backs in the league with his strength, size and speed. He's a sophomore, but is three years removed from his graduating high school class.
- Henry Josey, Missouri: The redshirt sophomore back from that devastating knee injury he suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Josey says he's finally back to 100 percent, which is scary because he was one of the top backs in the country before his injury.
- Ben Malena, Texas A&M: He surprised some when he shot to the top of A&M's depth chart, but he's an extremely hard worker and can be a bear to take down. He'll be challenged by younger players, but he proved last year that he isn't intimidated by competition.
- LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: He can be a solid downhill runner or a weapon in the passing game. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark last year and returns as Mississippi State's top offensive player.
- Jeff Scott, Ole Miss: He isn't the biggest back in the league, but he has great speed and his very shifty. He won't be a viewed as an every-down back, but he's solid in open space and in the return game.
When it comes to safeties, there are a few more SEC faces on Kiper's list. Headlining his top five is Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He's such a rangy player and covers so much ground with his speed. He's also very good in coverage, which NFL scouts will surely drool over this season. Clinton-Dix also showed last year that he isn't afraid of contact and can play up in the box if needed. He's probably the league's most versatile ballhawk.
Coming in on Kiper's "Next up" list are LSU's Craig Loston and Ronald Martin, and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley. Loston is someone people are really starting to rave about. He's always had the potential, but his work ethic has been called into question. However, with more responsibility thrown his way last year, he really started to make strides with his game. He's also a hard-hitter who will basically be the captain of the defensive backfield this fall.
As for Martin, he was Eric Reid's backup last year and played in 13 games with one start. He really is an athlete and showed off some of his breakaway speed and instincts when he intercepted a tipped pass in the Idaho game and took it 45 yards for a touchdown. He doesn't have a ton of experience, but he'll make up for that this season.
Whitley has been a solid weapon for Mississippi State's secondary for the past few years. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on the team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play safety and covers a lot of ground in the back of the Bulldogs' defense.
Other draft-eligiblle safeties I'd keep an eye on this fall:
- Eric Bennett, Arkansas: He's been around for a while now and has had some up-and-down moments, but he has a ton of skill. He has smooth movements and can be a very physical player.
- Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: The rising senior wasn't afraid to mix it up all over the field last year. He can play closer to the line if needed and certainly isn't afraid of delivering a good amount of contact.
- Floyd Raven, Texas A&M: He was a backup corner last year, but moved to safety this spring and it proved to be the right decision by coach Kevin Sumlin. He's fast, rangy and extremely athletic. He has all the tools to be a stud, but just has to keep learning the position.
- Jaylen Watkins, Florida: He started his Florida career off as a cornerback, but moved to safety this spring. He's a very physical defensive back, has experience at safety and is a very smart player on the field.
2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (2nd Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RB/WR Trey Burton, DE/DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, S Jaylen Watkins, P Kyle Christy
RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards)
Passing: Jeff Driskel* (1,646 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Reed (559 yards)
Tackles: Josh Evans (83)
Sacks: Dominique Easley* (4.0)
Interceptions: Matt Elam (4)
1. Back in business: Sophomore Matt Jones running back had a fantastic spring and the coaching staff is convinced he’ll be a more than capable replacement for Gillislee. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Will Muschamp’s power-run offense. He’s a straight-ahead, downhill runner, who runs through contact and gets tough yards. The offense will be built around him, especially with the questions surrounding the passing game. Redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor, give the Gators solid depth at the position.
2. Lined up: UF’s offensive line made strides in 2012 and it will be even better in 2013. The addition of transfers -- Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) -- gives the Gators a pair of former starters to add to an already solid base with Harrison and Halapio. Plus, sophomore D.J. Humphries is an immediate upgrade from Xavier Nixon at left tackle. Garcia will start at left guard and pair with Humphries to give Driskel better blind-side protection than he had a year ago.
3. The middle is settled: With the loss of Bostic and Jenkins, the Gators needed a middle linebacker. The staff moved sophomore Antonio Morrison from weakside linebacker, and Morrison showed pretty quickly he was up to the task. He’s not the biggest middle linebacker the Gators have had (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), but he is certainly one of the most physical. Morrison hits like he weighs 260 pounds -- just ask 245-pound former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Morrison leveled last season. Morrison proved he could handle making the defensive calls and he should easily step into the role Bostic held for the past two seasons.
1. Receiver issues ... again: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will again struggle. That’s been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. He has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage. Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.
2. Safety dance: There’s some concern about the Gators’ safeties because some of the younger and less experienced players haven’t developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF’s two starting safeties. They have both played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman. Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Roberson, Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.
3. Just for kicks: Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis was, but it’s the first part that’s more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don’t get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball. Sturgis was able to bail the Gators out because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark may have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.