Miami Marlins

Gators defense prioritizing shutting down Kentucky

Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor will return Saturday against Kentucky from his one-game suspension.
Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor will return Saturday against Kentucky from his one-game suspension. AP

When Duke Dawson exited Florida’s season opener on Saturday with a minor shoulder injury, the Gators tipped their hand with their cornerback depth.

It wasn’t great, with backups suffering a set of mental lapses during the 24-7 win, though that wasn’t the end of the world against a lowly UMass team.

Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Kentucky will be different.

With Florida eyeing a chance to repeat as SEC East champions and All-American corner Jalen Tabor returning from a one-game suspension, second-year UF coach Jim McElwain expects the group to step up when the game kicks off.

“We have to do a great job of shutting [offenses] down and getting off the field,” McElwain said.

Florida struggled to do just that early against the Minutemen.

After Dawson left the game in the first quarter, sophomore corner Chris Williamson was burned twice. First it was a 24-yard completion on fourth-and-14 to end the first quarter. UMass scored its only touchdown of the game two plays later. One drive later, UMass quarterback Ross Comis connected with receiver Andy Isabella for a 53-yard catch-and-run. The 53-yard completion marked just the third time since 2012 that a UF defense allowed a completion of at least 50 yards from a non-Power 5 opponent.

In the second half, Comis found Isabella on a slant route that turned into a 30-yard gain.

Outside of those three plays, however, the Gators’ defense limited UMass to 74 yards of offense for the rest of the game.

“We were a bit antsy [in the first half],” safety Nick Washington said after the game. “I think we tried to play a little bit too much out of our shoes, but come second half we adjusted and started making some more plays.”

The three early miscues might end up being outliers, but when UF plays Kentucky on Saturday, the defense will need to make plays from the start if it wants to keep its 29-game win streak over the Wildcats intact.

Tabor’s presence, coupled with a healthy Dawson and fellow starting corner Quincy Wilson, will help.

Tabor earned first-team All-SEC honors last year after finishing with a conference-high-tying 18 defended passes (14 pass breakups, four interceptions) and returning two interceptions for touchdowns.

“With Teez back there, it’s going to make things a lot easier,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “We’re going to be able to communicate with him and he’s going to know what’s going on. And just his experience as a player and being in the moment, we’re not going to have anything to worry about.”

The Wildcats, who dropped their season opener 44-35 to Conference-USA opponent Southern Mississippi, had six pass completions go for at least 30 yards and tacked on another explosive play on the ground.

Three of quarterback Drew Barker’s four touchdown passes went for 72, 43 and 53 yards.

“I think that this’ll be one of those deals where we’ll find out what these Gators wanna do and what standards they wanna set,” McElwain said. “We certainly opened the door for them with this performance [Saturday]. But we’ll see. It should be fun.”

▪ Roster moves: UF freshman wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells had their charges stemming from their BB gun incident in July reduced on Tuesday. State attorney Bill Cervone told the Orlando Sentinel that the duo will now each face a criminal mischief charge — a first-degree misdemeanor. The original charges were firing a missile into a dwelling (a second-degree felony) and property damage in excess of $1,000 (a third-degree felony). McElwain reinstated both Cleveland and Wells to the team this week. They were suspended for the season opener against UMass. They are cleared to play against Kentucky.