University of Florida

University of Florida’s improved secondary faces daunting challenge in Birmingham Bowl

Stingy secondary: Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III (1) leads a Gators defense that has yielded just 213.1 passing yards per game over its final eight contests after struggling early in the season.
Stingy secondary: Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III (1) leads a Gators defense that has yielded just 213.1 passing yards per game over its final eight contests after struggling early in the season. AP

The last time Florida was in Alabama, its inexperienced secondary was schooled and shredded.

An hour west of Birmingham, the Crimson Tide racked up a school-record 449 passing yards on Sept.20, as UF’s defensive backs — including All-American Vernon Hargreaves III — were embarrassed.

But a lot has changed in over three months.

The Gators’ secondary, led by Hargreaves and safety Keanu Neal, has rapidly improved, developing chemistry and a cohesiveness absent early in the season.

After allowing a combined 818 passing yards against Kentucky and Alabama, the Gators yielded just 213.1 passing yards a game the rest of the year.

Now comes their biggest test since their last trip to the Heart of Dixie.

Florida (6-5) squares off against East Carolina’s prolific aerial attack in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday at noon (ESPN) at historic Legion Field.

In a bowl game marred by mediocrity (UF’s interim staff, few tickets sold) and inclement weather (100 percent chance of rain), it at least offers a marquee matchup of strength on strength.

“Our defensive backs have really improved,” UF interim coach and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.

“It was drastically different in the back end from what it is now. That’s not uncommon. Those guys were true freshmen; a lot of them hadn’t played together. … We made a decision as a coaching staff after the third game that we needed to make things simpler in what we were doing to give them a better opportunity and chance.”

And it worked.

Florida’s talented but raw group, including freshmen Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Duke Dawson, cleaned up the communication issues and became a terror to opposing quarterbacks.

The Gators surrendered just 13 passing touchdowns, 10th nationally, and intercepted FSU quaterback Jameis Winston a career-high four times, but ECU’s explosive offense is something they haven’t seen all season.

The Pirates (8-4) have five wideouts with at least four touchdown receptions, led by Justin Hardy, a shifty playmaker who is the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader.

Hardy averaged nine catches a game as a senior and forms a dynamic duo with ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who ranks third nationally in passing (359.6 yards) and has thrown 61 touchdowns the past two seasons.

“They’re going to air it out,” Neal said.

“We know they’re going to throw the ball. … It’s going to be a test for us as a secondary. We’re looking forward to it, looking forward to the challenge. It’s a business trip for sure, so we’ve got to come out with a win.”

Florida aims to snag a bowl victory for the since 2011, using the momentum to springboard into a new era.

But motivation and focus remain as question marks for the Gators, as new coach Jim McElwain isn’t actually coaching yet, and distractions (additional staff turnover, player deflections) continue to pile up.

Still, the Gators are well aware of the Pirates’ potential, especially through the air, and Saturday’s showdown stands as a real litmus test for just how far their secondary has come.

TWO STARTERS ABSENT

Florida will be without two starters Saturday, as senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings did not make the trip after a violation of team rules. Cummings, suspended for UF’s weather-canceled opener against Idaho, finished the year with 30 tackles and 2.0 sacks.

Meanwhile, sixth-year senior returner Andre Debose’s roller coaster career ended with a thud, as Debose left the team in advance of the bowl game.

“He’s moving on with his career,” Durkin said, adding the decision was “mutual” between Debose and Florida’s staff.

Debose, a former five-star recruit, was the SEC’s top punt returner in 2014, and was a single kickoff-return touchdown away from setting the conference record.

Saturday: Florida vs. East Carolina

What: Birmingham Bowl.

Kickoff: Noon; Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

TV/radio: ESPN; WAXY 790, 104.3 FM.

Favorite: Florida by 7.

Records: Florida 6-5 (4-4 SEC); East Carolina 8-4 (5-3 ACC).

Series: Florida leads 1-0.

Florida injuries: Out — DL Bryan Cox, Jr. (hip); LB Jarrad Davis (knee); LB Neiron Ball (knee); RB Mark Herndon (knee): CB J.C. Jackson (shoulder); TE Jake McGee (tibia); LB Jeremi Powell (knee); DL Thomas Holley (hip); WR Andre Debose (undisclosed).

East Carolina injuries: Questionable — DB Cody Purdue (wrist). Out — DB Lamar Ivey (wrist); DE Demage Bailey (knee); OL Christian Matau (knee); Kirk Donaldson (knee); WR DaQuan Barnes (back); TE Darren Dowdell (leg); LB Devaris Brunson (knee); RB Breon Allen (leg).

PROBABLE FLORIDA STARTERS

OFFENSE

DEFENSE

POS.

NO.

PLAYER

YR.

POS.

NO.

PLAYER

YR.

QB

3

Treon Harris

Fr.

DE

92

Gerald Willis

Fr.

RB

24

Matt Jones

Jr.

NT

55

Darious Cummings

Sr.

FB

41

Hunter Joyer

Sr.

DT

90

Jonathan Bullard

Jr.

WR

11

Demarcus Robinson

So.

DE

6

Dante Fowler

Jr.

WR

1

Quinton Dunbar

Sr.

LB

34

Alex Anzalone

So.

TE

88

Clay Burton

Sr.

LB

51

Michael Taylor

Sr.

LT

70

D.J. Humphries

Jr.

LB

3

Antonio Morrison

Jr.

LG

63

Trip Thurman

Jr.

CB

1

Vernon Hargreaves

So.

C

76

Max Garcia

Sr.

CB

5

Jalen Tabor

Fr.

RG

73

Tyler Moore

Jr.

SS

20

Marcus Maye

So.

RT

75

Chaz Green

Sr.

FS

42

Keanu Neal

So.

PK

16

Austin Hardin

So.

P

4

Kyle Christy

Sr.

PROBABLE EAST CAROLINA STARTERS

OFFENSE

DEFENSE

POS.

NO.

PLAYER

YR.

POS.

NO.

PLAYER

YR.

QB

5

Shane Carden

Sr.

DE

94

Johnathon White

Jr.

RB

22

Chris Hairston

Jr.

NT

9

K’Hadree Hooker

So.

WR

9

Cam Worthy

Sr.

DE

93

Chrishon Rose

Sr.

WR

7

Isaiah Jones

So.

LB

51

Montese Overton

Jr.

WR

2

Justin Hardy

Sr.

LB

44

Zeek Bigger

Jr.

WR

85

Davon Grayson

So.

LB

24

Brandon Williams

Sr.

LT

69

Ike Harris

Jr.

LB

48

Maurice Falls

Sr.

LG

72

Quincy McKinney

Jr.

CB

10

Rocco Scarfone

Jr.

C

74

Taylor Hudson

Sr.

CB

4

Detric Allen

Sr.

RG

65

J.T. Boyd

So.

SS

22

Terrell Richardson

So.

RT

68

Tre Robertson

Jr.

FS

3

Travon Simmons

Fr.

PK

14

Warren Harvey

Sr.

P

40

Worth Gregory

So.

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