When Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy announced at the end of the year that he was leaving for the NFL, it immediately hit you that the Gators could go from bad to worse. They just experienced their most disappointing season in program history with a 4-8 record and are now losing one of their better players on the team.
Then reality set in after a few days.
The Gators will be OK without their athletic corner chasing around speedy wide receivers. In fact, they may be better off without him.
Purifoy brought a ton of athleticism to the field. He only had two career interceptions and wasn’t the greatest tackler, but his elite speed and relentless hustle made him a nice piece to have in the defensive backfield. Those traits also carried over to other sides of the ball, as he spent some time on offense and was a brilliant special teams player.
The Gators will without question miss his blocked punts, him blitzing off the edge and getting down the field before the return man has room to run. However, from an overall defensive perspective, they’ll be just fine.
We can start with true sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III. As a freshman last year, he proved to be the Gators' best cover corner and actually finished third in the SEC with 14 deflected passes. While there are more experienced corners in the country, you can count on one hand how many are as talented. He’s an elite player and should be given a look for next year’s Jim Thorpe Award if he can build on last season’s success.
Unlike Purifoy, Hargreaves III has the ability to not only shut down his man, but he can take away half of the field. If he’s remotely close to a receiver, the quarterback is going to think twice about throwing the football.
Now that we got that out of the way, it’s time to find Purifoy’s actual replacement.
The worst-case scenario is Florida can’t strike gold twice with another kid fresh out of high school to take over the spot, and they’re forced to move Brian Poole over from nickelback. The experienced junior has been a stud at the position and gives the secondary a sure tackler.
With his instincts and natural feel for the game, the coaching staff hopes he can remain at nickel, especially with how much they like to use five defensive backs. You want an experienced player roaming free on the field.
The best-case scenario is true freshman Jalen Tabor pulling a Hargreaves III and securing his starting spot. It almost sounds unheard of how a school could find two cornerbacks who are so polished that they’re able to go from high school to starting in the SEC immediately. But I’m not the only one who believes this, as Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports also thinks Tabor is good enough to suit up opening day:
Tabor is a press corner who uses his long, rangy body to bother receivers and knock them off their routes. He isn’t the fastest defensive back, but his size and physicality makes him a matchup nightmare against any receiver. His physicality also translates well to the running game, as he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in run support, which was a weakness with Purifoy.
The 5-star recruit didn’t enroll early to ride the bench his freshman season. He has the size and ability to play right away and thrive as Purifoy’s replacement.
That’s the most likely case, but it wouldn’t be fair to rule out Nick Washington or freshman Duke Dawson. Washington played a couple games on special teams before missing the remainder of the year with a shoulder injury. While he’s capable of playing corner, he’s best suited at safety due to his lack of quickness.
Dawson is another true freshman who enrolled early and has a ton of potential. He’s a big hitter and quite fast for his 5’11”, 197-pound stocky build. The problem is that he spent a lot of time playing wide receiver and safety in high school, so he isn’t as polished at corner as Tabor or some of the other candidates. Still, he’s sure to see playing time in his first season.
Purifoy had a successful career and should be forever thanked for helping to prevent a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2012. But he played pretty much the only position Florida doesn’t need help at.
It shouldn’t take long for the Gators to replace their biggest departure.