The decisions the Florida coaches will make with the safety personnel will have a profound impact on UF’s 2009 title run. With five capable players, it will be very tough to determine who gets on the field and how often. Much like in a chess match, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong will have to use the right piece at the right time to be effective. Of the many faces vying for playing time, only one has the chance to leave a permanent mark (both literally and figuratively) on the 2009 season.
Major Wright arrived in Gainesville with a nasty reputation from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Wright feasted on opposing offenses from his safety position. He ripped through wide receivers and running backs like Kobayashi through hot dogs. His highlight videos were a thing of beauty as he made hitting an art form, pain being his medium and shoulder pads his brush.
Three years later, Wright continues to instill fear into opponents on a regular basis. His destruction of Oklahoma’s Manny Johnson in the first five minutes of the 2008 Orange Bowl set a vicious tone that wouldn’t be reversed (see picture). SEC receivers have been known to break down and cry in the huddle when assigned a crossing route in the Swamp. There is no doubt that Major Wright affects games psychologically as well as physically. However, there is a problem with Major: he plays safety, not linebacker.
A safety’s job is one of the most complex on defense. A great safety must have many tools at his disposal. They must have brains to read and dissect plays more than any other defender, and from further away. They must have braun to take on a bruising fullback that broke through the front seven. They must have burst to cover the opponent’s fastest deep threat with a moment’s notice.
As personified by former Gator Reggie Nelson, a good safety is also an “eraser,” cleaning up mistakes made by the front 10. To magnify their responsibility, usually a safety does not have any backup, so one wrong step often means six points.
For these reasons, Major Wright is a liability.
It is easy to love his explosive ways. However, for every bone-crushing hit he lands, he misses two. Naturally, everyone remembers the knock-out blow, but the scoreboard remembers all of it. The box score in Sunday’s paper shows the points that resulted because he tried to send someone to the hospital, rather than just ungracefully dragging someone down in the open field. It is also common knowledge that he is suspect in coverage and often looks confused while the ball is in the air. That is not a compliment.
Wright is being mentioned as a top safety in the nation, and a first-round draft pick, heading into this season. He certainly has the tools to perform at the highest level, but he has only mastered one aspect of the position.
Hopefully, throughout spring and fall practices, he has developed more of the all-around skills that define a great safety. If he has, the sky is the limit and look for him to be an irreplaceable force on the Gators defense. However, if not, his role may be reduced to wedge-buster on kickoffs.
A quick review of the rest of the 2009 Florida safety corps:
Dorian Munroe (R-Sr) – He is recovering from a torn ACL that sidelined him all of 2008, but he looked great in spring practice. There is so much depth at the position that any contribution from him will be icing on the cake.
Ahmad Black (Jr) – The biggest surprise of 2008, Black emerged from the depths of the cornerback rotation to co-lead the nation with seven interceptions as a safety. He will likely man one of the safety spots, and his consistency and football IQ should prevent any letdown this year.
Will Hill (So) – A great all-around athlete, “The Thrill” started his career as a special teams enforcer, but he ended the year getting significant minutes at safety. He will only improve and is the biggest threat to take Wright’s playing time.
Dee Finley (Fr) – Highly touted as a senior in high school, he needed a year in prep school to iron things out. Greatness is expected from Finley as he begins his career as a Gator, but he’ll have to earn his stripes on special teams this year.