LEXINGTON, Ky. — The kid needs to play.
When starter Marcus Roberson went down with a knee injury against Miami — he did not play against Tennessee or Kentucky — No. 20 Florida turned to highly touted freshman Vernon Hargreaves III to fill the void.
Hargreaves has done more than that. He has become the Gators’ best cornerback.
Hargreaves, who headlined UF’s impressive Class of 2013, has three interceptions in his first four games. Although each forced turnover has been the product of intelligence and world-class athleticism, his game-sealing interception to secure Florida’s 24-7 victory against Kentucky on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium was his most impressive feat thus far.
With the Wildcats driving late in the third quarter of what was then only a two-score game, quarterback Maxwell Smith reached back and sent a pass deep into the end zone intended for receiver Javess Blue.
He instead found Hargreaves, who made an acrobatic effort to secure the pass, tap his toes in the corner of the end zone and hold onto the ball as his momentum carried him out of bounds.
“He’s a ball-hawk,” said a relieved coach Will Muschamp, whose team experienced the lows of losing two of its most important players in the span of four days last week.
“He gets the ball off people. He has a knack for going and getting it. He has tremendous leaping ability. He’s probably got a 37- or 38-inch vertical. He’s got really good ball skills down the field. He judges the ball extremely well. He’s got good body position on receivers. He’s a very good football player.”
Muschamp’s laundry list of accolades for Hargreaves is exactly why he should be on the field as much as possible — not just when a veteran from Florida’s secondary is banged up.
Through four games, Hargreaves has shown better instincts in coverage than Loucheiz Purifoy has at any time during his UF career. And many pro scouts consider Purifoy a first-round talent.
Hargreaves has been more impressive than even Roberson, UF’s other lockdown cornerback. When Roberson was healthy against Toledo, he seemed to be loafing on several plays, relying on superior athleticism instead of sound technique.
It may seem blasphemous and even shortsighted to anoint Hargreaves the team’s best cornerback after only four games. But if you watch what he does on a play-to-play basis, not just when he is flying through the air to intercept passes, it becomes clear that is the case.
Hargeaves is rarely out of position. The only thing surpassing his physical genius is his mental acumen. His ability to read and diagnose offensive formations leaves him in perfect position to constantly be around the ball, whether it be batting down passes, making tackles or creating game-changing turnovers.
“He’s just a ball-hawk player,” Buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said.
“That’s all I have to say for Vernon.
“When he caught the ball, I saw it, and I saw how high he got. All I said was, ‘Wow,’ and I just walked off to the sideline. That’s crazy. He’s going to be a very good player.”
Hargreaves is already more than just a very good player.
The kid is the best Florida’s defense has to offer.
Follow Phillip Heilman on Twitter @phillip_heilman.