From Matt Elam to Major Wright to Reggie Nelson, the Florida Gators have a strong track record of recruiting and developing NFL-caliber safeties.
Having a strong leader on the back end of the defense has always helped the Gators rank among the best defenses in the SEC. This year should be no different, as several talented safeties should contribute to what could be the top secondary in the country.
Let’s take a look at Florida’s safety depth chart for the 2015 season.
High School Ranking: 4-star, No. 7 Safety
Known as one of the biggest hitters on the team, true junior Keanu Neal appears poised to become a more complete player this fall. Tipping the scales at a rocked-up 216 pounds, he’s exactly the type of enforcer that new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins can build around.
Part of a stacked 2013 recruiting class that also included defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington, Harris has been a steady contributor since the day he stepped foot on campus.
As a true freshman, he played in all 12 games as a core special-teamer before earning eight starts last fall. Neal finished his sophomore season with 45 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one defensive touchdown. Expect him to take another step forward as one of the key members of an extremely talented defense.
Class: Redshirt Junior
High School Ranking: 4-star, No. 5 Safety
Now in his fourth year at Florida, Marcus Maye should be one of the standouts in a supremely stacked secondary. The Melbourne native redshirted in 2012 and has since grown into a reliable and versatile chess piece.
After starting two games at safety in 2013, Maye made nine starts last fall at safety and the nickel spot. He finished third on the team with 62 total tackles while also chipping in an interception and two forced fumbles.
As one of the most experienced members of Florida’s defense, Maye should see plenty of action at both the safety spot as well as the nickel position. Another strong season could lead him to depart to the NFL next spring.
High School Ranking: 4-star, No. 9 CB
A superstar at Dixie County High School (Cross City, Fla.), Duke Dawson earned Class 1A First-Team All-State honors after leading his school to a 10-1 record as a senior. A highly sought after cornerback prospect, Dawson chose Florida over offers from Florida State, Alabama, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Cracking the secondary rotation is tough for any true freshman, but Dawson did manage to earn one start last fall. In 11 appearances, he totaled 14 tackles and returned his only interception for a touchdown against Eastern Michigan.
Entering his second season in the system, Dawson will battle fellow sophomore Quincy Wilson for playing time. Ultimately, we may not see Dawson’s true breakout year until 2016, when he can contribute either at corner or safety.
Class: Redshirt Sophomore
High School Ranking: 4-star, No. 8 Safety
Expected to be a major contributor from the famed 2013 recruiting class, Marcell Harris hasn’t quite lived up to expectations … yet. The Orlando native has yet to start a game in his short career and has just seven tackles to his name.
Still, that doesn’t mean we should discount Harris’ talent or ability to grow into a valuable rotational player in 2015. The 2013 Under Armour All-American Game participant had offers from a number of major programs, including Texas, Florida State and Notre Dame.
Though Harris doesn’t project as a starter, he’s still a name worth keeping an eye on in the long term. He probably stands a better chance at starting in 2016.
Class: Redshirt Sophomore
High School Ranking: 4-star, No. 14 Safety
Another former four-star recruit battling for playing time, Nick Washington has quite the uphill battle to climb. The Jacksonville native played just two games as a true freshman before sustaining a season-ending injury.
Last fall, he played in all 12 games but rarely saw snaps on defense. At this point, he seems destined once again for special teams—a spot where he excelled last season.