Florida’s young safeties becoming even more important with senior Nick Washington ailing

Gardner (ankle) was on coach Jim McElwain’s Monday morning injury report and he didn’t line up with the first-team defense at the start of practice Tuesday, as freshman Shawn Davis and sophomore Jeawon Taylor were in at safety for the “fastball” period open to media.

While Gardner has drawn his share of criticism from fans this fall for his missed tackles, he managed to tie for the team lead with 12 total stops Saturday against LSU. More to the point, with Florida already down two likely starters at the position, he is their only remaining option with any significant experience and his positive health update is good news for a thin position group.

Marcell Harris tore his right Achilles tendon before the start of camp, wiping out his entire season, and Nick Washington left in the second quarter Saturday after aggravating his ailing shoulder on a missed tackle.

Behind Gardner, the Gators have Davis, Taylor, freshman Brad Stewart, freshman Donovan Stiner (who played some at nickel Saturday) and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton (who has yet to record a tackle this fall). All have limited experience at best.

Gardner, suddenly the veteran of the group, felt the young safeties filled in well after Washington’s departure.

“They did exactly what they’re supposed to do. Like I say, you ain’t young no more. Like coach says, ‘Hey, next man up,’ Just go out there and don’t worry about what you’ve got to do. Just go out there and have fun. It’s just another step, a bigger crowd [is] nothing new for them,” he said.

Davis, who notched 3 tackles in an expanded role against LSU, drew the most buzz from that group in the preseason and played early in the season-opener against Michigan. After he got beat for a long touchdown while adjusting late on a route, he seemed to fall out of favor with the coaches.

“The one thing I tell them, bad eyes tell lies. So if our eyes are not in the right place, then it’s telling a lie,” defensive backs coach Corey Bell said a few days later of the miscue.

But Davis seems to be regaining some trust. The fact is, with the Gators’ depth what it is at that spot, they need to put some faith in the players that have shown the most upside and potential.

As Gardner put it, they can’t afford to think of those safeties as young developmental players anymore when there may not be any experienced options left to consider otherwise. Washington’s shoulder has been a problem since before the season, and he was in obvious pain Saturday. It’s not clear how long he’ll be out of action, so Florida has to roll with what it’s got.

“They’re doing good. They’re doing exactly what freshmen are supposed to do. You’re going to make a couple of mistakes. It’s football. You’re not going to be perfect,” Gardner said. “Knowing that I was able to play with Shawn there a couple of snaps and being able to play with Brad a couple of […]