With the likes of potential high NFL draft picks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson protecting both of Florida's boundaries, the likelihood of freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III earning starter-level playing time early in the season seemed unlikely.
Now, nearly six months removed from playing ball at Wharton High School in Tampa, Fla., Hargreaves is the lone freshman on the Jim Thorpe semifinalist list (awarded to the best defensive back) and has emerged as Florida's most productive corner.
#Gators DB Cody Riggs on Vernon Hargreaves III: "He plays 100 miles per hour." Said he deserved to be named a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist.— Adam Lichtenstein (@ALichtenstein24) October 28, 2013
Hargreaves, 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, has erased multiple scoring opportunities and has showcased his 38-inch vertical on countless occasions. The freshman is tied for second in interceptions in the SEC with three and leads the team with seven pass breakups. Muschamp told Jason Leiser of The Palm Beach Post earlier in October:
He's a ball-hawk, just has a knack for going and getting it. He judges the ball extremely well. He's got good body position on receivers. I'd like to say it's coaching, but it's not. Some guys have natural ability, and he's got it.
And through seven games, Hargreaves has been highly impressive.
Think the UF coaches have confidence in true freshman Vernon Hargreaves II? Starting at corner AND returning punts 3 games into his career.— Chris Harry (@GatorZoneChris) September 21, 2013
The freshman has allowed just 10 catches on 36 targets (27.8 percent) for 204 yards and has shown he can flip his hips with the best of them. His reputation as a technician has proceeded him, thus far, starting with his first appearance versus Toledo.
In this play, Toledo is lined up in a 3x1 formation in 10 personnel with three receivers to the strong side with Florida showing a 3-3-5 defense.
Hargreaves is lined up in man coverage versus Toledo's Alonzo Smith. Smith stands 6-foot-4, 190 pounds and holds a clear size advantage.
At the snap, he shows patience and tempo throughout his brief backpedal and maintains his cushion using great arm extension to bump Smith off his route stem.
Hargreaves opens his hips quickly to play the vertical stem of the route while maintaining inside leverage.
Superior pressure from Florida's pass rush forces Terrance Owens to make a throw from a difficult base and into an area occupied by two defenders (Hargreaves, Poole).
And as Smith rounds out his route, Hargreaves shows great eye discipline, reads Smith's break and drives the throw.
Smooth. That's what you see from Hargreaves and his ability to transition to the football.
Plays like these have become a recurring theme this season. Hargreaves can play press, man-to-man and, at times, he'll flash in trail technique. Not coincidentally, he leads Florida in almost every major passing defense statistic.
And on a defense muddled by untimely injuries, Hargreaves remains a steady force in the SEC's first-ranked unit and a likely possibility to earn the Jim Thorpe Award.