On the first defensive play of the Gators’ 2023 season, the Utah Utes scored on a 70-yard passing touchdown.
From that moment, however, the Florida secondary has improved immensely under secondary coach Corey Raymond and new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong despite being filled with primarily freshmen and sophomores.
The Gators held the Utes to just 165 passing yards and McNeese State to 66 yards. Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton threw for 287 passing yards but only on a 59% completion percentage and threw one pick.
The No. 25 Florida Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) have given up 226 yards per game through the air which is good for the 62nd best rank in FBS — a 22-spot jump from last season where they finished 84th in the nation.
UF’s improvement in stifling offenses’ pass attacks has come from a fusion of youth. Gators freshman safety Jordan Castell earned the starting position to open the year and hasn’t looked back. He led the team in tackles in Florida’s upset against then-No. 11 Tennessee and earned Week 3 SEC Freshman of the Week.
Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore and UF head coach Billy Napier also touted the play of Castell.
“Jordan is very versatile,” Moore said. “Covers like a corner, tackles like a safety. You can really line him up anywhere.”
On Tennessee’s second passing touchdown of the game, Vols wide receiver Bru McCoy found separation against UF freshman cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson for a 55-yard touchdown.
Jackson held his head down but Castell quickly came to his aid to lift his head back and up and keep his spirits up.
“I think that's great,” Moore said. “For [Castell] being so young to just showcase that skill, that leadership, let Ja'Keem know he's still a great player, we going to get this back. That's a great trait to have.”
The move showcased the standard that the older players set, he added.
Napier added how the play represented the bond between the two freshman defensive backs.
“Obviously Ja'Keem is out there playing as a rookie,” Napier said. “That's [Castell’s] boy, right? Doing his best to encourage him. Those are good things. Those are healthy things.”
Napier noted how Castell is built for the moment and his fellow freshmen teammates have recognized him as a person and player, he said. He praised his ability to process and communicate and also his physical ability.
“The guy's playing partly because he's mature enough to handle it,” Napier said. “I think he is a future leader, and certainly amongst his classmates he's well thought of.”
Among the other young contributors is Castell’s safety partner is sophomore Miguel Mitchell. The former three-star recruit has become a regular starter alongside Castell in the defensive backfield.
At cornerback, junior Jason Marshall Jr. featured heavily in his first two seasons but his teammates are getting their first taste of starting and playing consistently.
Moore is one of those young players seeing the field more. The young defensive back caught his first career interception against the Volunteers that eventually set up another Gators’ touchdown.
“I was just happy to be a part of a play that changed the game,” Moore said in a press conference Monday. “A lot of guys on the sideline, we were celebrating, connecting.”
The younger players on the defense have been following the example set by the older guys on the team, Moore said.
He attributed the adjustments the freshman defense has made to quickly adjust to college level to the help of the coaches and older guys. They’ve gotten experience early and the extra reps they’ve put on the practice field have paid dividends, he said.
Armstrong, who became the new defensive coordinator after Patrick Toney left for a position on the Arizona Cardinals staff, instantly became a coach players have bought into.
“The guy he is off the field,” Moore said. “He's like a best friend off the field. When you got a coach that you can connect to off the field, we're going to play that much harder for a coach that you can really connect to.”
Moore mentioned how things such as a group chat with Armstrong and the UF defense has helped the team connect further.
“We'll be texting, be going back and forth in the group chat every day. Good vibes in the group chat,” he added.
Napier also praised his young defensive coordinator for the defense’s early performance.
“I think Austin has done a great job since the day he's been here,” Napier said in a Monday press conference. “I think [Tennessee] is a reflection of that, much like Utah was, much like McNeese was.
The Gators will play the Charlotte 49ers in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday. The game can be streamed on ESPN+ or SEC Network+.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.