Whether it’s been Joe Haden, Vernon Hargreaves, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson, Teez Tabor or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the University of Florida has a rich history of churning out defensive backs for the next level to enjoy. Though many of the recent Gator graduates have struggled to find their footing on the backend at the highest level, they always seem to show up ready to challenge for playing time as rookies. This year is no exception as the Gators, led by C.J. Henderson, currently boast two other players who are poised to hear their names called in April.
I’ve highlighted the three defensive backs that will be pivotal to the Gators’ defensive dominance, effectively boosting their stock for the 2020 NFL Draft: C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson, and Brad Stewart.
If you’re a team in the market for a true shutdown cornerback, it’s likely you already know all about Henderson.
Before evolving into the premier cornerback in the country, Henderson arrived at Florida a lanky 6-foot-1, 190-pound athlete in 2017. It seemed almost certain he would need at least two years of development before he was ready to mix it up with SEC wide receivers.
As a true freshman, Henderson played in nine games, making 22 stops, 2 pass breakups and 4 interceptions. He was named to the Freshman All-SEC team for his efforts.
Starting all 13 games the following season, the perimeter defender returned with a vengeance as a sophomore. Henderson racked up 38 tackles (5 for loss), 5 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, and an awe-inspiring 3 sacks. The ascending Gator effectively made himself a household name, announcing his arrival to the college football world.
Now listed at 202 pounds, the lengthy boundary corner will likely have a target on his back throughout the 2019 season. Widely regarded as the best coverage specialist in the country, in arguably the most competitive conference, Henderson will often draw the best receivers in college football on a weekly basis.
Remarkably, Henderson became a polished product early in his college career. He offers the versatility to fit any NFL defensive scheme, but his length should enable him to excel as a press-man corner at the next level. Henderson is a smart, instinctual defender that demonstrates outstanding eye discipline and is well adept at challenging the catch-point. He is currently slated to go in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft.
While Henderson is the unquestioned lead dog of Florida’s defensive back contingent, Marco Wilson may be the most intriguing. That said, one of the primary questions surrounding Wilson’s game heading into the draft isn’t his ability, but rather, his availability.
After a productive true freshman campaign in which he amassed 34 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 11 games, the six-foot, 190-pound defender was struck with early adversity in his second season.
In Week 2 of his sophomore year, Wilson went out with an injury on the opening defensive series against the Kentucky Wildcats. An awkward plant of his left leg sent ascending talent to the locker room, and it was later discovered he’d suffered a torn ACL.
After a lengthy rehab process, Wilson returned for the season opener this year. Thus far, he has 8 tackles through two games.
Despite a fairly limited college resume, there is plenty to like about Wilson’s game. Reminiscent of former Gators cornerback Brian Poole, Wilson is a hard-nosed defender that offers the versatility to play the boundary or slide inside to play nickel. The redshirt sophomore is tremendously fluid in and out of breaks, quick to diagnose plays and has shown a willingness to come up and make tackles. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to generate some mid-round appeal in April.
Stewart is something of an enigma. Known more his free-ranging than traditional safety play, the six-foot, 200-pound centerfielder has typically been one to rely on his athleticism to make plays.
As a sophomore, Stewart played in 11 games (7 starts), accumulating 41 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumbled and 2 interceptions. In fact, it was Stewart’s fourth-quarter interception against LSU that cemented the early-season upset.
Stewart has the potential to develop into an impact safety at the next level. Though he likely won’t be ready to contribute on the defensive end right away, he projects as a core special teams performer as a rookie.
Unless he’s able to evolve into a more polished product on the backend by the end of the season, look for Stewart to be selected somewhere in the later rounds in April.