Florida lost safety Marcell Harris for the season before preseason camp, and it appears sophomore Jeawon Taylor is in line to take the vacant starting job.
Two weeks into camp, it looks increasingly likely that Taylor (pictured above) will be starting next to Nick Washington at safety for the Gators. Taylor told reporters Thursday he’s ready for his “big opportunity.”
After Harris’ Achilles injury, one school of thought was that coaches would move sophomore corner Chauncey Gardner back to safety, where he played extensively last season. But Gardner has remained at corner, and the implication is that Jim McElwain and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon believe Taylor (6 feet 0, 206 pounds) is up to the task.
Taylor feels he’s set to take on the challenge.
“I really do think I should step up and play safety so Chauncey can do what he do,” Taylor said. “He’s a great player.”
Taylor made seven tackles in 10 games last season, with most of his action on special teams. Washington, for one, has been impressed in camp.
“Jeawon’s been doing really well,” he told reporters Thursday. “He’s starting to communicate a lot more. He’s physical with his play and he’s making plays on the ball.”
Barring further injuries, the Gators appear set to enter the opener against Michigan with a secondary of Taylor and Washington at safety and Gardner and Duke Dawson at cornerback. True freshman Marco Wilson, the brother of Quincy Wilson, might be the top contender at nickelback.
The Taylor-Washington combination in the middle presents an interesting study in contrasts. While Taylor’s surge from special teams guy to starting safety has hit a relatively meteoric pace, Washington has needed five years to progress from top prospect to full-time starter.
Washington has been viewed as an elite athlete across multiple sports since his high school days at powerhouse Jacksonville Trinity Christian, but finding the right niche has been a challenge.
He played both offense and defense during a championship-winning high school career, and even in his earliest years, he’s always had the instincts to seek and pick off passes in bunches.
But developing as a consistent tackler to support the run has taken time. His weight ranged in the 180-190 range through high school (he’s now listed at 198 pounds). Further complicating his football development, Washington also excelled on the baseball diamond – so much so that some scouts viewed him as an early-round prospect in the Major League Baseball Draft.
Health issues also slowed Washington’s rise. In 2013 as a true freshman, he redshirted because of a shoulder injury, and his 2016 season came to a premature end because of an ankle injury. Coincidentally, his injury led to Gardner starting the final three games of the season.
Replacing Harris’ leadership will be difficult. But Washington has at least two cards in his favor: Years of riding the ups and downs in Gators football – including the turmoil at the end of the Will Muschamp era – and a personality that’s willing to take on even unusual dangers away from the field. Just witness Washington’s most unusual non-football pastime. Make no mistake: It takes guts to trap live alligators.
Taylor and Washington have three more weeks to build their chemistry before they face their big test, against Michigan in the season opener.
(You can follow Gridiron Now on Twitter @GridironNow)
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.