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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Gators’ defense young, but highly talented

GAINESVILLE — There are holes that need filling. There is maneuvering to be done. And there is an expectation the incoming freshmen will contribute quickly.
Such is the concern and optimism Florida coach Will Muschamp has regarding this year’s defense.
If the Gators are to duplicate a 2012 season in which they limited opponents to 14.5 points and 288 yards per game, new playmakers must emerge. After all, Florida’s top three leading tacklers were taken in the NFL draft, leaving gaping holes in the defense.
“I’m concerned about depth at the linebacker position, more than anything the experience,” Muschamp said. “I think we recruited well, but those guys need to gain some experience through training camp and obviously we were not as good at the safety position in spring.”
Gone is free safety Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Baltimore Ravens, who led Florida in interceptions last season with four. Also gone are linebackers Jon Bostic, taken in the second round by the Chicago Bears, and Jelani Jenkins, drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins.
Sophomore Antonio Morris, who has an opportunity to start at middle linebacker this season, is suspended for Florida’s first two games, against Toledo and Miami, after being arrested twice in a five-week period over the summer.
Alleviating some of Muschamp’s worry, however, was the idea he could turn to sophomore Dante Fowler Jr., a Lakewood High product, on the defensive line. And, in the secondary, to senior defensive back Jaylen Watkins and redshirt junior Cody Riggs.
“Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs are two guys, and Cody will strictly play safety, but Jaylen is a guy who can play some different positions and be productive at multiple spots,” Muschamp said. “He gives you some flexibility.”
Watkins registered 39 tackles with three interceptions and eight pass deflections last season. Riggs played in two games before fracturing his foot and being sidelined for the remainder of the season.
And, as Muschamp hoped, a handful of impact freshmen are filling the holes.
Jarrad Davis, a freshman linebacker from Kingsland, Ga., has impressed coaches with his play, as well as Nick Washington, a defensive back from Jacksonville.
“We’ll see how much he can play early on,” Muschamp said of Washington. “He has physicality to play inside, as well as outside.”
One of Florida’s most prized freshman recruits is Vernon Hargreaves III, the 2013 Wharton High graduate who was the top-rated recruit in Florida coming out of high school and the consensus top defensive back in the country.
“He’s very mature,” Muschamp said. “He understands the game. He’s very cerebral in his approach, but a guy that we feel can slide inside and play nickel. He’s got the physicality to play inside. He’s got good run instincts and a good blitzer and good ball skills down the field and he’s got outstanding man-coverage ability. He’ll have every opportunity in the world to play early.”
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