Photo: Sharif Denson; Credit: UF Football Communications
A hectic month of June for Gators recruiting has come to its inevitable end.
Consisting of a few significant misses on prospects occupying areas of need, June was a rollercoaster ride of an affair that cast a dark cloud over the program at times.
However, not everything went wrong for Florida.
Not to be overshadowed by the negatives, a highlighting factor and potentially the biggest win of the 2023 class to date came in the form of Bartram Trail (Fla.) defensive back Sharif Denson's commitment to the Gators.
Announcing his pledge on Monday, the Florida native elected to stay home to continue his football career, fulfilling his dream of making it to the collegiate level and remaining in the state. The commitment established a firm foundation for UF's secondary moving into the future.
Secondary coaches Corey Raymond and Patrick Toney intend to continue applying pressure in hopes of obtaining other in-state targets like Cormani McClain and Ja'Keem Jackson to pair alongside the St. Johns County prospect in the 2023 cycle.
As Denson gears up to enter the next chapter of his career, AllGators took the liberty of breaking down the talented coverage man's skillset in a seven-clip film room and projected positional outlook.
High school: Bartram Trail (Fla.)
Size: 5-foot-11, 170 pounds
Projected position: STAR nickel cornerback
The initial trait that jumps out when watching Denson on tape is his ability to fly around the field with sideline-to-sideline speed. As of late, the Gators' cornerbacks to leave their mark on the program — namely CJ Henderson and Kaiir Elam — have possessed similar traits.
Whether it resulted in them staying on the hip of opposing wideouts to knock down intended passes or chasing down opponents who should be stepping into the end zone before they reach pay dirt, Henderson and Elam got it done.
Right now, Florida hopes Jason Marshall Jr. can breakout to become that guy after a more-than-promising freshman campaign a season ago.
However, after him, Denson can be the next Gators' corner to fit that mold, even if he doesn’t line up outside.
That skill set is on full display in this clip.
Despite playing with a considerable cushion to begin the rep, Denson's speed and change-of-direction burst allow him to stay in position to make a break at the receiver being targeted underneath.
Starting the rep with his eyes on the quarterback, Denson is able to get a good idea of where the ball is going before the passer releases it into the flat. When the quarterback starts to go through his motion, Denson explodes out of his backpedal and toward the line of scrimmage toward the intended receiver.
While some corners would allow the wideout to make a move upfield and play into them — falling forward for an extra few yards — Denson's speed allows him to eliminate space between him and his assignment. As a result, he makes it difficult for the ball carrier to create yards after catch even when he started the play allowing significant space.
His strong instincts and acceleration to burst toward the ball at the release point is a luxury that the Gators will use to their advantage when he arrives at the next level.
Denson's speed is not limited to his ability to close gaps when working downhill from a cushioned coverage. It's multifaceted, as he has consistently shown his ability to eliminate points from the scoreboard by chasing down would-be scorers from behind.
Here, Denson is forced to make up nearly five yards of ground on a streaking ball carrier. Denson does it almost effortlessly, an almost impossible feat for most players around the nation.
Starting as the far side cornerback on the play, Denson would usually be considered a nonexistent factor as the ball carrier makes headway through the middle of the Bartram defense.
Breaking free into the open field untouched, the running back looks to have green grass ahead of him for an easy walk-in touchdown. However, with Denson's rare straight-line speed, he starts running from behind to track him down.
Outpacing the ball carrier considerably as he once again closes the gap between him and the ball, Denson makes a score-saving diving tackle near the goal line.
Not only is he flashing his quickness here, but his effort to extend his body to trip up and bring down the back.
The gifted speed is a vital aspect of Denson's game.
Making up for his lack of size (at least height-wise) when attempting to contend with the quick-twitch players he will be asked to cover from the slot, this component of his game will present a difficult matchup for opposing slot wideouts to contend with against him on the college gridiron.
A trait that will always elevate an excellent cornerback to a great cornerback is his ability to make plays on the ball.
Denson can do just that.
Playing as a wideout in 7-on-7 competition, Denson has flashed soft, strong hands and body control to make routine and acrobatic receptions. That translates to the other side of the field when the pads are on.
Working in man-to-man coverage in what looks to be a high-low route scheme from the wideouts on the far side of the field, Denson can be found playing on the shorter of the two out routes.
Remaining on the intended pass-catchers upfield hip as he breaks toward the sideline, Denson is in a perfect position to make a play when the time comes. Rolling out to his right, the opposing quarterback gives him that opportunity.
With the passer seemingly throwing the ball up for grabs, Denson plants his feet in the ground and ascends to snag the ball at its high point.
In his return attempt, Denson reverses field and works upfield to put the Bears within striking distance offensively.
The play, all-around, is a thing of beauty. There’s a reason it is the first play on his highlight tape.
Even when he cannot get his hands directly on the ball, Denson works incredibly well at working through the wideouts arm pocket to create incompletions.
That can be shown in clip two as he works back toward the ball toward a wide receiver running underneath.
Although the ball was thrown late and behind, Denson shows restraint and patience not to make contact until the ball gets to the intended target. When it does get to the point, he pushed his right arm out through the arms of the intended receiver, knocking it incomplete.
His knacks for creating deflections and working through the receiver's body to ensure balls fall to the turf are consistently present in his junior season tape.
Working downhill can be checked off as a significant strength Denson flashed during his junior season.
On the first play in the two-play clip above, Denson is facing off against fellow Florida Gators commit Creed Whittemore and the Buchholz Bobcats. He is tasked with setting the edge in the ground game.
Seeing Whittemore bounce back off left tackle after an initial jab step toward the right side of the line, Denson begins to attack downhill toward Whittemore. With two players to maneuver through, Denson is able to adequately shed the blockers, attack the legs of Whittemore, wrap him up and bring him down.
The second is similar in that Whittemore bounces to Denson's side following a botched snap. With no blockers to shed this time, he breaks down on the ball carrier before cutting his lower half from beneath him.
There is nothing flashy about the reps, but his natural feel for finding the ball carrier and displaying the proper technique to bring them down are promising traits for his future as a nickel cornerback.
Although he has a propensity to throw his shoulder at players at times, possessing the strength to knock them back but not enough to get them to the ground, Denson's willingness and effectiveness in popping pads at the line of scrimmage adds an extra dimension to his game.
The one you've all been waiting for.
The athleticism and intangibles Denson possess are great attributes to complement his skills in coverage. However, just how good is he in coverage?
In this clip, Denson mirrors the footwork of a Buchholz wide receiver as he runs a nine route down the far sideline. Giving him outside leverage to push upfield, Denson consistently crowds him toward the sideline without shoving to the point of pass interference.
Eliminating the space he has to work in the open field, he is able to maintain a position on top of the route for most of the rep. Despite coming even with the wideout when the ball reaches its descent, the mutual hand fighting with the receiver allows him to work through the body and force an incompletion at the goal line.
The most significant aspect of Denson's game that will be refreshing to many Gators fans who have watched cover corners get burnt by attempting to jump routes and make plays on the ball is his ability to stay in position.
While athletic enough to get his hands on leather, Denson is smart enough to ensure that even if the ball is caught, he maintains leverage to make a tackle with the opposite hand secure on the upfield side of the receiver's body.
Consistently working feet before hands, Denson maintains balance before stabbing wideouts in the chest to throw off timing on routes for quarterbacks.
His sneaky power throws assignments on their heels. That can result in overthrows and occasionally turnovers due to his ability to adjust for the ball.
He isn't necessarily refined in technique as a coverage man and can often fail to get his head around for the ball when playing on the near side hip. Still, he has the physical intangibles to overcome his lapses in fundamentals.
The best way to describe him is as an uber-athletic cover corner who — once again, despite his size — is impressively physical at the line of scrimmage.
He can work in zone coverage schemes and has shown promise working in free-range, as shown above, but feels most comfortable as a man-to-man cover corner where his athleticism and high-level instincts can take over.
Playing bigger than he is due to his functional limb length, Denson possesses a desirable frame that allows him to jam wideouts at the line of scrimmage to force them in the direction he wants to play. He likes to take inside leverage at the snap, forcing assignments toward the sideline to eliminate their room to work effectively.
While he won't have that luxury at the next level — due to his projected fit as a STAR nickel cornerback — Denson's ability to dictate a receiver's release off the line of scrimmage suggests a high football IQ.
That will be integral to his success at arguably the most crucial position in Patrick Toney's defense.
Denson has the potential to be a playmaker for Florida when his time comes.
Equipped with the skills explained above, the current Bartram Trail star presents tremendous upside for the nickel spot he has been recruited to occupy.
In fact, his talents suggest that he can be the best STAR prospect the Gators have recruited for the position since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson starred in the role in 2018.
His speed, length, pursuit of the ball in the ground game and ball-hawking tendencies makes him the embodiment of a player who can flourish in the position. That reigns especially true in a Toney-led defense that — while highlighting defensive backs — asks the secondary to be the central piece.
His technique upon arrival at UF will require refinement, namely the little parts of his game like getting his head around for the ball and wrapping up at the point of attack. But, the raw talents are there to make him a contributor on special teams in the early going, with the ceiling to climb the depth chart at STAR quickly.
If things go according to plan, Denson should be a multi-year starter in arguably the most challenging yet essential spot in the Gators' secondary.
Stay tuned to AllGators for continuous coverage of Florida Gators football, basketball and recruiting. Follow along on social media at @SI_AllGators on Twitter and Florida Gators on Sports Illustrated on Facebook.