- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Joe Haden jokes that he remembers the days, not too long ago, when Florida barely went "one deep" in the secondary.
"Now we're three deep, and there are going to be a lot of guys standing on the sideline this season who could start just about anywhere else in the SEC," said Haden, who two years ago became the first true freshman in Florida history to start at cornerback on opening day.
Safety Major Wright also started as a true freshman during that frightful 2007 season for the Gators' secondary.
They still have nightmares about Michigan quarterback Chad Henne's taking target practice to the tune of 373 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 41-35 victory over Florida in the Capital One Bowl.
"Major and me, especially, know what it's like to be at the bottom," Haden said. "Now that we know what it feels like to be at the top, we make sure everybody knows what it takes to stay there."
How deep are the Gators going to be in the defensive backfield this season?
Put it this way: They might have two of the best four or five secondaries in the league.
As many as 10 players have made a push to play, and that's being conservative.
Take sophomore safety Will Hill, maybe one of the best all-around football players on the team. He's the fifth defensive back right now. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Hill will play in nickel situations and could end up pushing Wright at free safety.
The Gators' other starting safety, junior Ahmad Black, said it's just that kind of competition that has taken the Florida secondary to new heights.
A year ago, Florida tied for first nationally with 26 interceptions and was third nationally in pass efficiency defense. Black finished the season with seven interceptions, which tied for the most nationally.
There was a time when not even Florida coach Urban Meyer was sure Black could play at this level. In fact, had Dorian Munroe not blown out his knee last preseason, Black might not have gotten a chance.
Munroe is back and healthy this season, but Black isn't budging.
"A lot of people see me getting off the bus and wonder if I can play," Black said. "I just had to go prove them all wrong."
One of the secrets to the Gators' success in the secondary is how many freshmen they've played back there, and more importantly, the way those freshmen have developed.
In addition to Haden and Wright, starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins and backup cornerbacks Wondy Pierre-Louis and Markihe Anderson all played as true freshmen. Pierre-Louis, a senior, started all 13 games at cornerback in 2007, and Anderson, another senior, was the projected starter going into the 2007 season, but was plagued by a sprained knee.
"You're looking at a lot of guys in that secondary who had to play right away," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "We've built something where guys understand how important it is, because we got ridiculed in that Michigan game and got beat up so bad that guys had no choice but to bounce back. They were embarrassed."
No more, though.
That embarrassment has been replaced with unbridled confidence. Haden said there's a running competition among all the defensive backs.
"We keep tabs on how many passes your guy catches, and you better not be last," he said.
As good as Haden is -- and some NFL people think he will be a first-round draft pick if he comes out following this season -- Jenkins might be even better as a pure lock-down cornerback. He followed in Haden's footsteps last season, becoming only the second true freshman at Florida to start at cornerback on opening day.
"Honestly, we feel like if we're in man coverage that nobody is going to complete any passes on us," Haden said. "That's the expectation level now. It used to be 'Make sure you get them on the ground after they catch it.'
"Now, it's 'Don't let them catch it -- period.'"
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covered Tennessee from 1997 to 2006. Send your questions and comments to him at email@example.com.
There's a running competition among the players in the secondary. That's part of the reason the Gators' defensive backs have reached new heights.