Coach Will Muschamp called him first-class.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said he was a “luxury.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor described him as a smart football player.
For Jaylen Watkins, versatile is a better label. The senior defensive back leads Florida with 22 tackles from the cornerback and strong safety positions. Watkins, who started at cornerback in the season opener, replaced redshirt freshman Marcus Maye at the strong safety a week later.
With Matt Elam and Josh Evans leaving for the NFL, Florida had to replace both of its starting safeties.
As a safety, Watkins represents the last line of defense. The Gators, missing their two top tacklers from a year ago, needed the experienced Watkins to make the transition.
Watkins knew he didn’t tackle well last year.
He added weight and worked on fixing his tackling issues during the offseason.
“I wasn’t the best tackler last year, and that’s something I worked on,” Watkins said. “Being back there at safety has allowed me to showcase that I’ve gotten better at tackling.”
Watkins started for cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who didn’t play in Week 1 due to a violation of team rules.
When the Florida secondary has been in a bind, Watkins has been there to clean up the mess.
He appeared in all but three games in three seasons heading into this year.
He’s manned just about every position in the secondary — the dime, nickel and both cornerback spots.
“That’s a huge value to have in the back end. Not many guys can do that, to move from safety to cornerback to safety,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “There’s not many guys that can do that, both understanding the defense and being able to play in it and also have the ability level to do it. Whenever you have a guy like that, it’s really a luxury.”
At strong safety, Watkins has taken over for Evans, who led Florida with 83 tackles last season.
Watkins compares nicely to Evans.
Neither are the fastest players in the secondary.
Neither may make a leaping interception like Vernon Hargreaves III made against Kentucky, but they do their job, and they do it well.
A 52-yard touchdown pass from Miami’s Stephen Morris to Phillip Dorsett sparked the change at safety. Dorsett beat Maye on the play.
Muschamp made the switch the following Monday, saying, “You just can’t give up big plays. We can’t afford that to happen. You’ve got to tackle better.”
Added responsibility comes with a move to safety. Watkins, now making defensive calls, enjoyed that aspect of the move. He’s in greater command of Florida’s secondary.
“Jaylen’s a smart football player. He knows the defense very well,” Taylor said on Sept. 17, a day after the switch. “He’ll be able to execute for us very well back there.
“He’ll provide us with some big plays. I’m not saying that anyone else wasn’t able to, but he’ll provide us with some big plays that we need.”
While Watkins envisions a potential NFL career at cornerback, he’s spent an entire offseason preparing for the switch.
All the talk about Watkins for three years focused on consistency, and now recently how versatile the senior has become. Besides cornerback and safety, there’s a new title to add to his name — leader.
“He’s been a very vocal guy in a very positive way,” coach Will Muschamp said.
“He’s one of the leaders on our football team. I don’t think there’s any question when you walk in that locker room, the respect he has of his teammates and how he carries himself. He’s a first-class young man.”
Follow Adam Pincus on Twitter @adamDpincus.