Photo: Jaydon Hill; Credit: Chris Kim, University of Florida athletic association
This year's Florida Gators secondary will be undergoing a rebuilding of sorts. Gone are former secondary coaches Torian Gray (cornerbacks) and Ron English (safeties), and in are new faces Jules Montinar (cornerbacks) and Wesley 'Crime Dog' McGriff (safeties).
A sense of rebirth and newness is already being felt within the Florida secondary from a player's perspective too. Several members of its secondary from last season have departed to the NFL, and new faces, young and older will have to show up to replace them in good fashion.
For Gators cornerback Jaydon Hill, he has already seen firsthand what his position coach brings to the table, and the excitement level within the secondary and motivation is certainly at an all-time high.
"I knew I would like Jules [Montinar] just because our first conversation; It was about ball production" Hill told AllGators last week during a phone interview. "He's big on ball production. And that's one thing that at the cornerback position is very important, and that's not talked about enough. He just wants the ball in our hands.
"Ball production, that's all he preaches. Like, 'get your hands on the ball, get your hands on the ball.' The more you get the ball in your hand, the more opportunity to go to the NFL, being a top corner, being the top defensive player, just being around the ball. That's all he's preaching, make plays on the ball, make plays on the ball."
While it seems simple, the Florida secondary needs to make major strides in just that area, desperately. Last season, the Gators finished with just six interceptions among its secondary. Two of the interceptions came from former Florida safety Shawn Davis who is now off to the NFL, drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.
Montinar is not only helping the Florida secondary with his on-field teaching, however. He has taken it upon himself to preach off-the-field responsibilities, making sure his players take care of themselves away from the game, doing everything they can to get better in football and in life.
"Making sure you're taking good care of your body, make sure you do your film study, make sure you're not lacking in the classroom," Hill explained when describing how Montinar contributes to the unit.
"He's big on just carrying yourself, outside of football too. All the things that you do off the field translate, sort of like character. He's big on just doing the right thing. We were just talking the other day, he asked did I watch some film from practice. That's something big that I like."
To understand the impact of both on-the-field teaching and off-the-field teaching should have within the Florida secondary, one must look at the team's issues from a season prior. Last year, Florida was one of the worst secondary units within the SEC. There were constant mistakes in communication and simply a lack of production overall.
They ranked No. 100 in the FBS, and it's something that Hill understands.
"It's simple. Really, just don't let the receiver catch the ball," Hill said frankly. "It's simple, but when you really just break it down, just hone in and just lock in and everybody just do their job, you know, and we're very capable of being one of the best secondaries.
"Even though we had a bad year last year, collectively, we definitely have a chance to be one of the top secondaries in the nation. And I really meant that when I say it. We looked real good [this spring]."
It is that simple, really. Don't let the receiver catch the football. Do that, and you're one of the top defenses in the NFL. Getting there, however, is an obstacle that most secondaries cannot overcome. This year's Florida secondary won't stop every catch, no secondary does, but its mindset and the energy within the room has changed, according to Hill.
"We got a bright future for sure. Everybody's locked in. It's just a different vibe. Everybody wants it," he said. "I feel like ike everybody wants to be better, everybody wants to see improvement. We take everything serious. Anything, like little catches, we don't want to give up nothing. That's our mindset, like, I don't want to give up nothing."
There will be a difference within the Florida secondary this year. Hill will likely become the team's full-time starting cornerback opposite of Kaiir Elam, while senior safety Trey Dean III mans the safety position as a full-time starter for the first time in his collegiate career.
With Elam, Hill and Dean, those three will be the group's leaders, pushing the younger players forward. Hill explained with those three being the elder statesmen of the group, they'll work to make sure everyone stays on track.
"One goes down next one right up. No slacking off. Everybody can play, you know?"
Among the younger group, Hill says all of them stand out - that's something that should be expected when players talk about their teammates. But, he did elaborate on at least a couple of them, including freshman safety Donovan McMillon, who Hill admits initially he wasn't so sure about.
"He probably was the most like surprising," said Hill. "Like, honestly like no disrespect or nothing, I didn't think Donovan, just looking at him I'm like 'I don't know, I don't know.' But he came in and he was doing his thing and I like that he was doing his thing, for sure."
First impressions aren't always everything. McMillon has been one of the players that have been highlighted throughout this past spring, and there's an opportunity for him to earn playing time during his first year at Florida.
Hill would go on to mention that redshirt freshman, Avery Helm, was another player within the secondary that stood out, along with Jason Marshall and Fenley Graham, "all them boys, all them boys showing out."
Florida has a long way to go in terms of righting the wrongs it had just a year ago on defense. It will ultimately start and end with the secondary, regardless of the other units, that's simply the nature of the game. This year, though, Hill feels a sense of energy, a change, and perhaps it will be different.
"Everybody's buying in, everybody's ready."