Who will get the picks?

UF's depth at cornerback yields good-natured rivalry for starting roles

Updated: August 12, 2012, 2:48 PM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Marcus Roberson started 10 games at cornerback as a freshman in 2011 before an injury ended his season.

Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs started a combined 18 games last season, and Loucheiz Purifoy came on late last season and had a tremendous spring.

The four of them will wage one of the top battles in Florida's preseason camp. They're competing for two starting cornerback spots. A little more than a week into workouts, the situation is still as unsettled as it was when practice began.

"Competition's our best motivator and those guys are all competing," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "The performance the previous day (determines) who runs out there with the first group. During practice, if you continue to play at a high level you stay there; if you don't somebody else comes and gets you."

Much like the competitions at quarterback and offensive line, each player has had good moments and bad. All four had an interception in the first week, and all four have spent time repping on the first team with a different partner.

"Nobody has a job," Purifoy said. "We switch every day. We all get the same amount of reps. If one group goes first one period, then the next group goes first the next period."

Each player has a different strength. Roberson (6-foot, 180 pounds) is a cover corner who spent the offseason getting stronger and adding weight. He also has worked on his ball skills -- after dropping several interceptions and getting caught out of position in one-on-one battles with receivers while the ball was in the air.

Purifoy (6-1, 186) is a more physical player with long arms and a huge wingspan. The sophomore improved steadily throughout the 2011 season, playing mainly as a special teamer and a reserve cornerback, but had a very good spring and went into the offseason as one of the Gators' top two corners.

"Just working hard, competing, doing everything the coaches ask me to do," Purifoy said. "Anything that helps the team that's what I'll do. I'm physical. I can run. I'm big. I put my hands on people."

Watkins, a 6-foot, 187-pound junior, has played in 23 career games and started eight games last season, including the final six. He led all cornerbacks with five pass breakups.

Riggs (5-9, 180) is a sophomore but he's the most experienced of the group. He has played in 26 career games and started 10 games last season. He's not as tall as the other three, but he's faster and is able to make up for mistakes with his speed.

The competition is tight, but the two guys who don't start will still see the field. Riggs and Watkins are both capable of lining up on slot receivers, and the Gators plan to use five and six defensive backs pretty regularly this season depending on the matchup.

"It's not necessarily who is winning at left corner position. It is, 'Who are our best five guys today?' " Muschamp said. "Who are our best six guys today? Who are our best seven guys today? And let's get those guys ready to play, and then we narrow that number down as we move closer to the season. At the end of the day, if you're a starter in our dime package you're a starter. If you're a starter in our nickel package, then you're a starter, because we played over 70 percent nickel last year.

"It's kind of depending on the game you're playing. We are going to play some teams this year where we'll play nickel the whole game."

That's partly why the competition among the four players is friendly. Everybody's going to play, it's just that two guys will play sooner than the other two.

"We're all pretty close," Watkins said. "We all help each other out on the field. There's no hard feelings. Obviously, we are trying to fight. There's two positions and there's four of us, but we don't let it get the best of us."

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter