The Florida Gators secondary will look a lot different this season. The team has undergone an offseason of change, losing three safeties, Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart Jr., along with a cornerback in Marco Wilson to the NFL Draft. Only Stewart is still without a team a week and some change following the event.
Now, Florida will rely on its younger players to make a big step forward as starters, and depth, within the defensive unit. One rising veteran, Jaydon Hill, is set to make his presence felt in his first year as one of the team's unquestioned starters, ready to lay the foundation for his future.
Speaking with AllGators last week, Hill discussed at length about his role with the team and the improvements that need to be made himself in order to continue progressing, including open-field tackling, something Florida often struggled with last season. Now, as a starter, there would typically be added pressure, but Hill says he's feeling none of it.
"I don't really look at it as pressure, you know," Hill told AllGators. "I just look at it, I feel like I've earned the right to start so I just want to get on top of it and be the best player I can be, really just help the team out any way I can."
Hill began his career at Florida in 2019 as a four-star recruit out of Madison (Ala). He's since appeared in 22 games, making five starts with the team, all coming just last season. He's accounted for 25 total tackles (14 solos) and ten pass breakups, seven of those breakups coming last season as well.
Though Florida's secondary was certainly a weak spot in 2020, Hill showed he belonged plenty. While he says he wants to improve "everything" in his game, Hill believes he played "pretty solid" with his repetitions last season as a starter.
"From technique to playing the ball in the air to tackling," Hill said of what he needed to improve most on this offseason, heading into his junior year. "But, the biggest thing I want to say to improve on is me, and as a whole, I say open-field tackling."
While he has had struggles in the past, Hill is certainly not afraid of sticking his nose in there:
The Gators began their spring camp quite early this year, something that Florida head coach Dan Mullen noted was necessary in order for his players to have the ability to watch their tape, and make corrections in real-time essentially. That's where Hill was able to improve the most thus far, but there's still plenty of room to grow.
"I improved in the spring, not as big as a jump as I wanted, but I know going into spring me and [cornerbacks] coach Jules [Montinar] sat down and we were just talking about the game. And one thing that I really think he says was balance, getting in and out of breaks," Hill said of what he felt was needed to improve heading into the offseason.
As Florida heads to its summer break in anticipation of fall camp a few months from now, players will need to train on their own, whether it be in groups or individually. Hill has found plenty of time to do both, even with former NFL defensive back Jerraud Powers, who Hill has worked with since his freshman or sophomore year of high school.
"We watch film at his house," Hill said of Powers. "We do it all day. Little things to just help me better like on the field, off the field, just life period."
Powers' wife is actually Hill's cousin, which is how the two ended up meeting together. Powers spent eight years in the NFL, originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He announced his retirement in April of 2017.
Anything to get better is what Hill lives by, and something that even safeties coach Wesley "Crime Dog" McGriff has taught him and the other defensive backs on the team. What he says is something that sits in Hill's mind every day.
"He says 'Do something to better your game every day,'" Hill recalled. "Whether that's like going to the field or even just at home but just doing something to better your game, watching film, anything to better your game."
Back in Gainesville, Hill and the other defensive backs get together to train as a unit, quite often. "We'll go to the fields like almost every other day. But, we definitely working every day, we're trying to work on Sunday to get better."
Now in Year 3, Hill has become one of the veterans among an increasingly young unit. A leadership role is almost expected, and one that he embraces fully.
"That's another thing that Jules was talking about, me stepping up being more vocal, and I feel like that's what I have," Hill explained. "I improved on that during this spring. As far as like guys and the younger ones, coaching them up on little things. I honestly feel like I'm becoming more of a leader."
The Florida secondary will need that type of leadership moving forward as it attempts to change the narrative of the unit from just a season ago.
Last week, eight of Hill's former teammates were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Three others were given the opportunity to enter the league via undrafted free agency. He has since reached out to all of his past teammates to congratulate them, and seeing their dreams come true excited Hill: "It's big."
Now, Hill will hope to form his own path to the NFL he hopes, and seeing them get to that level motivates Hill that much more.
"That gave me more motivation to know that they were in the same shoes as me just last year, and living off of COA, rent checks, week-to-week," Hill said. "It's real eye-opening. It's there. You can do it."