Gators' Competition at Safety May Be the Most Important Yet

Demetrius Harvey

Faced with the task of mastering the defensive side of the football, Gators head coach Dan Mullen has stressed the importance of competition.

The extent at which the Gators do truly find ways to play the best players on the team is great, especially at the safety position. Last season, Florida deployed a unique back end of the defensive side of the football, often rotating safeties in-and-out in an effort to have players with a particular skill set on the field at the same time.

Time will tell whether this unorthodox plan will remain the same in 2020, however, the competition at the position is sure to be intense, especially with Jeawon Taylor now graduated. The four safeties which saw playing time last season included Taylor, Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner, and Brad Stewart Jr.

Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had this to say last year when asked about the unconventional plan in his secondary:

“We just felt like with the guys that we have, they all have talent, they all have ability. It’s better to play all four of those guys say in the 40s as opposed to a couple guys 75 or 80,” Grantham said. “I mean trying to keep guys fresh. So really it’s just a matter of trying to keep guys fresh and into what we’re doing. We have the luxury of having four guys that we can do that.”

While a plan to keep guys fresh on defense is fair, it is not commonly used when the team has two solidified starters at the position.

For reference, the Gators' top competitors within the SEC, Georgia, LSU, and Alabama all fielded safeties full-time on the field.

Alabama's Xavier McKinney (827 snaps) and Jared Mayden (800), LSU's Jacoby Stevens (979) and Grant Delpit (885), and Georgia's Richard LeCounte (820) and J.R. Reed (754), all played near fully allotted snap counts during the 2019 season.

Florida, however, used Stiner (396), Davis (494), Stewart Jr. (295), and Taylor (434) sparingly by comparison last season.

As a result, the Gators did not display a consistent unit on the field. While the team performed admirably on defense for the majority of the season, when the team faced tougher competition, they surrendered a ton of passing yards. For example, against LSU and South Carolina, the team surrendered 511 yards and 387 yards, respectively.

For the Gators, they'll likely field a combination once again at safety unless the team can figure out which two would provide the most consistency. Davis and Stiner could be the initial duo to start as two of the best returning to the team next season. Davis tallied 51 total tackles, one sack, and three interceptions, while Stiner chipped in with 29 tackles, one sack, and four interceptions on the year.

Likely entering the competition will be rising junior defensive back Trey Dean III. Dean was originally recruited to Florida in 2018 to play safety but quickly transitioned to cornerback after a rash of injuries depleted the group. After struggling to find a spot last year, the team could find it prudent to move him back to his more natural position.

Finally, two four-star recruits entering the team this year, Mordecai McDaniel and Rashad Torrence II, while not expected to play a major role as of right now, could find themselves in the middle of the race during the season, primarily playing special teams to start.

The Gators will look to continue competing whenever the team can return to the gridiron, and having a more balanced unit will go a long way in shoring up the team's secondary, especially in the SEC.