Florida is winning again thanks to dominant defense led by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III
Ever since Vernon Hargreaves III's ballyhooed arrival at Florida nearly three years ago, he's lived up to the hype. The lockdown cornerback was a rare all-SEC selection and third-team All-America as a freshman. He was even better last season, earning unanimous all-SEC honors and making several first-team All-America lists.
Had the 5'11", 199-pound junior been eligible for the NFL draft after last year, he likely would have been the first cornerback selected, according to NFL scouts. But for all that Hargreaves has accomplished individually, he entered this season focused on what he hadn't consistently done while in Gainesville.
"I just want to win," Hargreaves told The Inside Read during the preseason. "My biggest thing before any award or anything else is winning. That's who I am. That's what I like to do."
And it's what eighth-ranked Florida has been doing this season under first-year coach Jim McElwain as the Gators prepare for their biggest test of the season at No. 6 LSU on Saturday night.
Florida (6-0, 4-0) has done it behind a stingy, aggressive defense that's 11th in the FBS in points allowed (14.3 per game), 16th in yards allowed (296.3 per game) and 14th in turnovers gained (13). Opposing quarterbacks rarely throw in the direction of Hargreaves, who has three interceptions this season that he returned for 132 yards.
The Gators will lean on their defense even more against the Tigers after starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for a year earlier this week for testing positive for a banned substance. Grier's absence poses an even bigger challenge for a Florida team already exceeding expectations this season, not that Hargreaves will let it interfere with his obsession of winning.
"Whatever I can do, whatever we can do to win," Hargreaves says, "that's what's happening."
Hargreaves knows plenty about winning. His father, Vernon Hargreaves Jr., is Arkansas's linebackers coach, a position he also held at Miami from 1998 through 2005. The younger Hargreaves grew up with the Hurricanes, which during his father's tenure won a national championship in '01 and 82 of their 99 games. Having been exposed to that type of success, it's understandable why Hargreaves had been frustrated by Florida's sub-.500 record over his first two seasons.
When McElwain replaced Will Muschamp, Hargreaves and his new coach, who won two national championships as Alabama's offensive coordinator, quickly found a common bond in winning. So McElwain encouraged Hargreaves to come to him with any suggestions he might have. In turn, McElwain has been able to lean on Hargreaves for help with other Gators players.
"We both want to do anything we can to win," Hargreaves says.
And to help that happen, energized Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins also challenged Hargreaves to become more of a leader on this year's team. Hargreaves's increased leadership role has eased the transition to Collins, who had formerly been Mississippi State's defensive coordinator for two seasons.
"He didn't try to change everything," Hargreaves says of Collins. "He asked us constantly what we wanted to do and what we liked. He worked for us. The guys appreciated that. He's a guru. He know what he's talking about."
So does Hargreaves's father, but Vernon has never watched any of his film with his dad. The elder Hargreaves also never trained or pushed his son to play football. "He's strictly my dad," the younger Hargreaves says. "I appreciate that the most. He lets me learn for myself. I feel like that's why I am who I am today."
But Hargreaves's father does try to watch as many of his son's games as he can, despite usually having his own games on Saturdays. The elder Hargreaves doesn't talk about the plays his son makes, just the ones he didn't.
He often razzes his son about his tackling, an area where he knows he needs to get better. Not that the younger Hargreaves is at a loss for confidence when asked about his standing amongst college football's cornerbacks.
"I'm the best," Hargreaves says. "No doubt."
Barring something unforeseen, Hargreaves says he plans to bypass his senior year next season and enter April's NFL draft. He shrugs off comparisons to other cornerbacks, including the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman, who he spoke glowingly of before last season.
"I'm my own type of corner," Hargreaves says. "I feel like my game is a little bit different than everybody else's in terms of what I can do and I like to do."
And what Hargreaves would like to do more than anything else is keep winning.
Rich Graessle/Icon SMI
What's wrong with No. 7 Michigan State?
With top-ranked Ohio State garnering much of the attention for its struggles this season, the Buckeyes have provided some cover for another undefeated Big Ten team that's been lackluster—No. 7 Michigan State. The Spartans (6-0, 2-0), who play at rival No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0) on Saturday afternoon, have only won by an average of 10 points this season despite having played just one opponent with a winning record. And last month's 31-28 triumph over Oregon at home doesn't look nearly as good with the struggling Ducks near the bottom of the Pac-12 North standings.
While Michigan State has battled a rash of injuries, opposing coaches attribute the Spartans' pedestrian play to the loss of emotional former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was hired as Pittsburgh's coach in December.
"It's just different," a coach tells The Inside Read. "They don't have the same energy. He'd have them cranked up for the first quarter, coming out of halftime and then he came down to the field for the fourth quarter to get them juiced up again. Those guys loved it. There's nobody that can provide that juice."
It hasn't helped that Michigan State's offense has struggled, averaging 14.2 points less per game than in the first six games last season. To further complicate matters, the defense is staying on the field longer this season, allowing opponents to convert 38% of third down attempts (67th in the FBS).
Last season, the Spartans finished eighth nationally in that category (31.3% allowed). "They've lost their edge without Narduzzi," another coach says.
One coach warned Michigan State better find it quickly because Michigan is playing with the same type of passion for first-year Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh as the Spartans defense did under Narduzzi.
"They're just not the same team even though they've got a lot of the same guys," the coach says. "It's like they're in the same funk as Ohio State where they think they're better than everyone else and don't have to play."
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