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Colleges

UF’s Hargreaves shows maturity from the start

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Published:   |   Updated: September 21, 2013 at 03:18 AM

First-year players generally must wait for their turn in college football. Many take a redshirt season. Some gradually ease their way into the lineup.

Then there’s University of Florida freshman defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III, the former prep All-American from Wharton High.

How’s this for making a good first impression?

Two games, two interceptions.

Hello, world!

“He’s a guy who’s going to be in the rotation as far as starting,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said.

“We play several different packages on defense, where we bring five or six defensive backs, so he’s definitely considered a starter,’’ Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.

It’s not that UF lacks options in its secondary, where its top four cornerbacks from last season are back. Rather, Hargreaves is that good. He’s part of a formidable array of productive players from the Tampa Bay area who will play key roles for the Gators (1-1) during today’s SEC opener against the Tennessee Volunteers (2-1).

“I’m very impressed with him,’’ Gators linebacker Neiron Ball said. “He’s definitely a great player. I’m just excited to see him play. He’s a freshman who came in with great confidence and he has a great attitude about it, too.’’

Since Muschamp took over for the 2011 season, the Gators have upgraded the roster’s talent level, often tapping into players from Tampa Bay area schools. The Gators have underclassmen such as sophomore guard Tyler Moore (Countryside), sophomore running back Matt Jones (Armwood), junior fullback Hunter Joyer (Tampa Catholic), junior nose tackle Leon Orr (Gulf) and sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (Lakewood) in the starting lineup.

Then there’s Hargreaves, who had scholarship offers from nearly every major school. Sometimes, promises are made during the recruiting process. But Muschamp said Hargreaves never asked about playing time.

“Vernon wasn’t a guy who was real concerned about the depth chart,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s pretty well outlined for a young guy that we’ll give you an opportunity, but you have to take advantage of it. He had a lot of confidence in his ability to come in here and play right away.

“In order to play corner, especially the way we play, you better be a confident guy. He’s very comfortable in who he is.’’

More confidence: Hargreaves switched from the No. 16 he wore in the season opener against Toledo to No. 1. In fact, he’s the first UF true freshman to wear No. 1 since Keiwan Ratliff in 2000.

The emergence of Hargreaves has allowed the Gators to shift senior Jaylen Watkins from cornerback to safety, where he replaces struggling freshman Marcus Maye.

“Vernon knows what to do, and that allows us as a secondary to be more versatile,’’ Watkins said. “He has made plays like coach has asked him to do. He’s going to continue to make more.’’

Hargreaves was a spectacular playmaker at Wharton, where he became a Parade Magazine All-American and was also selected Most Valuable Player of the Under Armour All-America All-Star Game. None of his accolades were considered particularly surprising. He spent a lifetime preparing for those moments.

His father, Vernon Jr., is a longtime assistant coach. He worked with Miami’s linebackers during its 2001 national championship season. He spent three seasons on Skip Holtz’s staff at the University of South Florida. Now he’s at Houston.

“Vernon is really smart,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s a guy who really works at the game. He watches a lot of tape. There’s a reason why he’s playing well.

“He’s a guy who is blessed with a lot of athleticism, but he works at the mental side of the game. For a lot of young players, it’s very hard because they’ve been so much better than everybody else and they think that with their athleticism they’re just going to beat the opponent because they’ve always been better. That’s not how he has approached it.’’

Not by a longshot.

“You can tell he’s a coach’s son,’’ Durkin said. “You know he has been around the game. He carries himself like an experienced veteran, and it shows on the field.’’

“This guy is ready,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s the bottom line.’’

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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