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December 8, 2019
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Florida’s secondary sees an opportunity facing Georgia and Jake Fromm

Florida's secondary sees an opportunity facing Georgia and Jake Fromm
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With just under six minutes remaining in Florida’s 42-28 loss to LSU three weeks ago, Gators cornerback CJ Henderson lined up about two yards off Tigers receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

In less than two seconds, Chase jutted forward, shifted left, right, left, right, before cutting hard up the right sideline.

As soon as Henderson turned to face Chase, he was bumped by a teammate and Chase was off to the races, snagging Joe Burrow‘s pass and racing untouched to the end zone for the game-clinching, 54-yard touchdown.

The play was basically over in less than four seconds, and Henderson was left jogging down the right sideline before Chase even reached the 25-yard line.

Tiger Stadium exploded, as a play that seemed inevitable with how much LSU’s vaunted passing game leaned on Florida’s secondary all night to the tune of nearly 300 yards, three touchdowns and 12.2 yards per catch.

“We know the performance [against LSU] wasn’t how we wanted it to be,” said Florida cornerback Marco Wilson, who checks it at 75 in the PlayStation Player Impact Ratings. “It’s about coming back and not focusing on the bad, but focusing on getting better and fixing your mistakes.”

A week later, this unit turned around and held a sloppy South Carolina passing unit to just 170 yards with one touchdown and a season-best 4.9 YPC.

Call it a confidence booster if you want, but No. 6 Florida’s defensive backs know their real rebound comes Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, with No. 8 Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and a receiver corps full of potential waiting.

“You can make plays against quarterbacks who are average, but when you get a quarterback who’s looked at highly like him, it’s an opportunity to make plays and show we’re the best in the country,” Wilson said of Fromm.

Fromm, who has an 89 rating and who ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper listed No. 24 on his most recent Big Board, is on a bit of a redemption tour himself. He threw a career-worst three interceptions on a career-high 51 passes three weeks ago in an ugly, double-overtime loss to a South Carolina team that proceeded to lose to Florida and Tennessee by a combined 79-48 over the next two weeks.

Fromm dropped to 0-5 at Georgia when he attempts at least 30 passes in a game.

And before the Bulldogs’ bye, he went 9-of-12 for 35 yards in a windy, rain-soaked 21-0 win over Kentucky. Fromm was 0-for-1 on his only pass of 10 or more yards through the air (14).

Georgia coach Kirby Smart acknowledged the weather issues against Kentucky, but he said that some of Fromm’s decision-making, accuracy on throws and continuity with his receivers were issues of concern against South Carolina.

So, Fromm and Florida’s secondary will meet with something to prove. And look, both of these teams have thrived off the running game against each other, as the past 13 winners in this series have won the rushing battle.

Georgia is averaging a staggering 236.86 rushing yards per game and 6.07 yards per catch — both SEC highs — this season, while Florida is barely crossing 140 yards a game and 4.3 per carry.

So, running the football is essential, but so is the matchup of a secondary trying to reestablish its “DBU” moniker against a quarterback out to show that he’s worthy of all this NFL hype.

And the Gators know how capable Fromm is. He has been to a national championship and back-to-back SEC title games in his two-plus seasons at Georgia. For his career, he has completed 66% of his passes, thrown for 6,770 yards with 63 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and has a career QBR of 82.5.

Oh, and he is 2-0 versus Florida, torching the Gators for 240 yards, 10 first downs, five completions of 20-plus yards and three touchdowns last year.

“He’s a really smart player getting them into the right plays,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Can check and manage what’s going on. Can get things picked up, and he’s an accurate guy with the ball in his hand.

“Then he also has the ability to extend some plays. He’s got some athletic ability to extend plays. Even, I don’t think they do a whole lot of quarterback run game with him, but he’s athletic when he starts to scramble and can make things happen.”

For Florida’s secondary, it’s get back to basics. As talented as this group is — Henderson (88 rating) has defended nine passes this season and is Kiper’s 15th-ranked player, while Wilson has allowed just 6.2 yards per attempt on passes his way when he is the primary defender — defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said that this unit still is dealing with communication and technical issues that plagued it against LSU.

Truthfully, this group has barely played together. Wilson and Henderson have started opposite each other in six full games over the past two seasons. Wilson’s early season-ending knee injury cut into their cohesion last year, while an ongoing ankle injury has kept Henderson out of three full games this year.

Add the injuries/suspensions to a safety group with a high rotation among Shawn Davis (88 rating), Brad Stewart Jr. (69), Donovan Stiner (67) and Jeawon Taylor (92) and it has hardly spent the needed time together to create a close-knit unit.

Continuity allows a secondary to have familiarity and smooth communication, so whenever there’s something new, kinks must be worked out, no matter how much talent.

Henderson said he noticed some communication improvement in Florida’s win over South Carolina. While the defense bent against the run for most of the day, the back end held its own, limiting freshman Ryan Hilinski to completing less than 49% of his passes.

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