In Swamp247's final defensive preview heading into head coach Billy Napier's first preseason camp with the program, we take a look at the safety position, which returns a pair of starters in Trey Dean III and Rashad Torrence II. Within Napier's first month on campus, the Gators made a splash at the position through the recruiting trail, landing a commitment from Kamari Wilson, the No. 9-ranked safety prospect in the class of 2022 by 247Sports.
Furthermore, Wilson arrived on campus in January as an early enrollee, which should have set him up to see the field as a true freshman. But Wilson went through much of spring camp with an orange non-contact jersey, raising the question of just how much he was able to accomplish during his first experience with organized team activities at Florida. The Gators also added Miguel Mitchell, but he didn't arrive until the offseason, all but guaranteeing he'll redshirt this season, while Devin Moore, ranked the No. 24 safety in the class of 2022 by 247Sports, was recruited to play cornerback at Florida.
The position did take a hit from a depth perspective during the offseason with the departures of Fenley Graham and Mordecai McDaniel, though the former moved to wide receiver during spring camp and the latter wasn't expected to play a significant role this season. Instead, a pair of promising back-ups in Corey Collier Jr. and Donovan McMillon will rotate in for Dean and Torrence, and it's important the Gators capitalize on the chance to develop the pair throughout the season, given the Gators will more than likely need to replace both starting safety roles after the season.
Still, with two starters back in the fold, the safety position should be a strength for the Gators this season. The key will be avoiding injuries while balancing the development of those in line to succeed Dean and Torrence.
Now in his third season at safety, Dean has started on campus since his true freshman season, where he found himself at outside cornerback following an injury to Marco Wilson. He'd play nickel-corner as a sophomore before moving to safety before the 2020 season, the position he played at Dutchtown (Ga.) as a highly recruited prospect.
Dean had a productive season in 2021, with a team-high 92 tackles in 12 starts, though Torrence was right behind him with 87 tackles across 13 games. Given his seniority, Dean gets the nod here over Torrence, even if both players are entering their third year at safety with the program.
"The big thing we talk about at the safety position specifically, since that's my group, not only do we want to be the most gifted players on the field, we want to be the most skilled prayers on the field," defensive coordinator Patrick Toney said. "That means we have a mental checklist when we line up. We're scanning the formation. We are seeing the down in distance. We are knowing the exact alignments. We are knowing our assignment. We're seeing a specific key to get our on job done.
"I think that translates to what you asked with Trey. I think Trey has done a good job on focusing on those areas of his game, the details of becoming the most skilled player on the field. I think you'll see that translate in the season."
Mordecai McDaniel's departure in June may not be a significant loss for the program, but he did see the field in 23 games across the past two seasons with the Gators, including all 13 games in 2021. He had 15 tackles and an interception, and he was expected to compete with Collier and McMillon for one of the two back-up roles in the safety room. There is an optimistic outlook: McDaniel's departure allows the Gators to accelerate the development of the underclassmen in the building.
As long as the Gators can rotate in Kamari Wilson, Corey Collier, Miguel Mitchell and Donovan McMillon, the loss of McDaniel shouldn't hinder the unit this season in a significant way. If any of the rotational players were to miss extended time, however, the loss of McDaniel may impact the play of the unit.
The return of Dean and Torrence is why Florida's safety room should be one of the strengths of the team, without a doubt. The duo were two of Florida's best tacklers last season, but the schematic difference in 2022 should cut back on how often they're in on making the tackle. Dean's experience – he's played in 50 games heading into the season – and Torrence's usage to this point give the Gators a pair of experience playmakers in the secondary this season. In his final season with the program, Dean will look to add to his already impressive UF-career totals of 174 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 tackles-for-loss, 4 interceptions, 14 pass break-ups and one forced fumble.
“Me and Trey Dean, our chemistry and our bond increases every day," Torrence said in spring. "Just being back with him is kind of a blessing. Just knowing that he has my back and I have his every down is kind of a blessing.”
With both players back in the fold, the Gators won't have to rush either freshman safety or the back-ups into extended action, allowing Florida to gradually bring them along as they develop.
The No. 6-ranked safety prospect in 247Sports' composite rankings, Collier enters his second season with the Florida program after arriving in Jan. 2021. As a true freshman, Collier saw the field in a pair of games – against Vanderbilt and later against Samford University – before redshirting. Having grown more comfortable within the program, Collier impressed during Napier's first spring with the program. He's more physically developed in his second season with the program, which should allow him to see the field in an increased capacity.
"He's looking good. He's more focused this year," defensive back Jason Marshall Jr. said of Collier. "He's going to grow. You can see he's gained a lot of weight and his knowledge of the game is expanding."
And Collier's knowledge of the playbook has expanded. Throughout spring camp, he was in the right place at the right time at a much higher frequency. The combination should see him play a larger role in 2022; if the Gators can utilize Collier during his redshirt freshman season, it will take much of the pressure off of the starting duo of Dean and Torrence.
“He’s coming along great. I mean, this spring I feel like he’s tuned into his playbook a lot more," Torrence said in spring of Collier. "And he’s tuned into being a better safety first and learning the plays. I feel like that’s benefited him a lot.
Like Collier, Wilson arrived in time for spring practice as one of Florida's nine early enrollee additions, which should increase his chances of seeing the field in 2022.
Given the depth in the room and his freshman status, it would be difficult to say at this point that Wilson will be an impact player for the Gators in 2022, but his recruiting profile, football acumen and arrival timeline make him a candidate to jump up the depth chart this season at safety for Florida.
The big question, however, is just how much Wilson was able to accomplish during spring camp. He missed several practices early in spring, and was seen sporting an orange non-contact jersey in others, raising the question of his level of involvement. If he's been able to make up the ground in the offseason, Wilson can't be discredited as a player with potential to see the field early into their UF career. With a pair of starters back and multiple highly regarded back-ups, there won't be significant pressure to get Wilson on the field early into spring camp. If he's able to do so, it's not only a sign his development is farther along than anticipated – it's a promising signal for the future of the position after Dean and Torrence ultimately depart and test the NFL Draft waters, which is expected after the 2022 season.
“He’s coming along great," Torrence said in spring camp of Wilson. "He’s very explosive, very strong, interacts in every film meeting."
Expectations for the group should be lofty in 2022, given the revamped scheme, Patrick Toney's role and the return of both starting safeties from last season in Dean and Torrence.
If either player were to go down, the departure of McDaniel could come back to bite the unit, but the Gators are confident either Collier or McMillon can fill any void that were to occur. McMillon saw the field in all 13 games last season, although he didn't have nearly as much production as either of the starters, finishing the season with just 10 tackles. Outside of the four, the Gators have a pair of freshmen who can slot in if need be this season.
There's plenty of experience, sure, but if injuries were to pile up the room could see its ceiling lowered – which is true for just about every position on the team.
"Having that experience back there with some of the younger guys coming in," Torrence said on April 7, "it’s great to have that experience."
Will the schematic differences lead to significant improvement this season? Throughout the spring, both Dean and Torrence discussed the differences under Toney, who also serves as the team's defensive coordinator. Outside of the differences in philosophy, the terminology Toney uses is different than any of the players have used in the past during their Florida careers, and that alone could impact how quickly a player picks up the disseminated information.
Another question is if the Gators will attempt to accelerate Wilson's development considering his ceiling. Of the safeties on the roster, he may arguably have the highest potential of the group, and it may be wise to have him develop in-game rather than wait his turn on the sideline. If the Gators can get a sizable advantage over the opposition in a contest this season, it'll be intriguing to see whether or not Florida's coaching staff capitalizes on the window and prioritizes development at the potential expensive of a more-narrow margin of victory. It would pay dividends in the long run, but, of course, Florida isn't looking to put anyone in the game who isn't entirely ready for the moment. It could result in a negative outcome, and, barring an injury, Florida appears to have the numbers to avoid a situation where someone is called upon prematurely to see the field.