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Florida Gators foster competition at cornerback

GAINESVILLE — When fall practice began 12 days ago, Florida coach Will Muschamp knew his quarterback competition was going to be intense. As it turns out, the quarterbacks are not alone.

Another battle has ensued between sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy and juniors Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs for the starting cornerback position. Through the first 1 ½ weeks of camp, the four have shared equal reps with the No. 1 defense.

"It's very intense," said Watkins, who started eight games last season. "We're all scrapping right now, trying to get the ball, make big plays, tackling. It's all down to every small centimeter. We're all trying to do everything right, which is making us all better. It definitely keeps you from being complacent."

After one full scrimmage Saturday, Muschamp said, like the quarterbacks, the cornerback position is too close to call.

"Those guys have all done a good job," he said. "Right now, Marcus, Loucheiz, Jaylen and Cody are all competing. Cody's playing some nickel safety for us. Pop (Saunders) is probably our third safety. Pop's playing all over the place. He's playing our third safety and really, he's probably our fifth corner. And he also can play inside. But those guys are all competing."

Competition is so fierce at the position, players who compete against them daily on offense have taken notice.

"It's a competitive battle, from period-to-period, play-to-play," senior receiver Frankie Hammond Jr., said.

"Nobody's job is safe. If somebody messes up, there's somebody else right behind them to go in. So it just keeps the guy that's in front to stay on his toes because if you slip up, somebody else is coming in for you."

Of the four, Roberson and Riggs are the most experienced. Riggs has played in 26 games, with 13 starts. Roberson was the Gators' top cornerback as a freshman last season, but after 10 starts, he suffered a neck injury against South Carolina and missed the rest of the season.

"Our medical staff was great, so we were able to get through it," Roberson said. "I ran into a couple of people in the spring, and I don't even feel like I was hurt."

The Gators were 10th of 12 in the SEC in total defense last season but were No. 3 in the league in pass defense, with eight interceptions. Roberson said he believes depth will help improve those numbers.

"We'll get more rest and we'll be fresh every time we get on the field," he said.

This time last year, nearly every conversation with Muschamp included some talk about "cross-training" and the need to have players learn multiple positions — just in case of injury. It was a clear sign of how little quality depth he had at some of the most critical positions.

Talk has changed this fall, and Muschamp believes the depth that has fostered this competition can only be good for the Gators.

"Competing is what's making our team better," he said. "It's been a good competition for them all.

"They've all had opportunities where they've all made plays and big plays for us. Brian Poole was one of the interceptions (in Saturday's scrimmage). Loucheiz and Marcus had the other two. So, again, I feel very comfortable with where we are at that position right now. It's where you should be at Florida at corner."

Antonya English can be reached at english@tampabay.com.

Florida Gators foster competition at cornerback 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 10:42pm]
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