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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Defensive perimeter: Mullen updates secondary

The coach spoke about his defensive backfield in the absence of Jaydon Hill

Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam is a presumed star, but the rest of the cornerback group must battle inexperience during the 2021 season. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Culbreath/UAA)
Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam is a presumed star, but the rest of the cornerback group must battle inexperience during the 2021 season. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Culbreath/UAA)

The Florida football team seemed to have its secondary set ahead of the 2021 season, at least at the cornerback position with returners Kaiir Elam and Jaydon Hill the presumed starters.

Hill tore his ACL during fall camp, however, a second gut-wrenching, season-ending injury for the junior defensive back. While he rehabilitates, Florida is left with the question of who assumes his spot staring down opposing receivers.

Elam remains as much of a lock as a starting position can be. The junior, who was named to AP’s All-America Second Team Monday, finished last season as a First Team All-SEC team member. He started all 12 games and tallied 39 combined tackles, a pair of interceptions and 11 passes defended against the other team’s top receiver. He intercepted five passes and defended 15 across his two years in Gainesville.

The rest of the cornerback room, however, remains young and inexperienced ahead of the season opener against Florida Atlantic. When he spoke to the media on Monday, Mullen listed off recent transfers Jadarrius Perkins (JUCO) and Elijah Blades (Texas A&M), redshirt senior Patrick Moorer, redshirt freshman Avery Helm and Ethan Pouncey and five-star true freshman Jason Marshall as players who’ve competed for that second spot, but refused to reveal who had the inside track on the starting spot.

“I don’t know, it’s not September 4,” Mullen said. “They all get the same reps right now.”

Of those six players the coach named, only three were on the roster at the end of last season. Moorer played in nine games across the past four years, including a trio of games a season ago, and Helm saw time against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl to end last season. Blades played seven games for the Aggies in 2019, including six starts, but opted out of the 2020 season. None of the other three have seen SEC action.

When asked about the two games before Florida’s conference opener versus Alabama on Sept. 19, Mullen said he’d take the chance to throw some of his younger players out to see them in game situations. 

“Absolutely,” Mullen said. “I mean, someone’s got to play, so we’re going to put them out there, right?”

The fourth-year coach said Florida would cycle between a lot of different players and his team is competing for playing time, not starting positions. Mullen said fans should be more invested in who finishes a game rather than who starts it.

“We play a lot of guys,” Mullen said. “When the game’s on the line in the fourth quarter, who’s going to be on the field, that’s probably more important than who is playing the actual first play of the game.”

Mullen said the cornerback group matured and grew during spring practice and camps, but he can’t replicate the experience players like Elam and safeties Trey Dean, Rashad Torrence II and Tre’Vez Johnson have.

“I think they’ve grown up a little bit but there’s a lot of scenarios guys haven’t been in,” Mullen said.

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With the inexperience surrounding Elam, Mullen said his top corner has grown into a leadership role in his secondary and praised both his on-field performance and achievements in the classroom as an example for his teammates.

“I think he’s a guy who’s very conscientious, does things the right way, takes care of his business,” Mullen said about his top corner. “I think now he has the opportunity, realizing, ‘Hey, I’m the veteran older guy,’, even though it doesn’t seem like he’s been here forever, and (he’s) the older veteran guy and (he’s) got to be a leader and he’s bought into that role as well.”

Elam and the corners continue to prepare for the season which begins at home in The Swamp on Sept. 4.

Contact Ryan Haley at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

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