Florida coach Urban Meyer says Joe Haden would be a great player no matter what position he was playing.
Haden, easily one of the best all-around athletes in the SEC, came to Florida thinking he was going to be scoring touchdowns rather than preventing people from scoring touchdowns.
As a high school senior in Fort Washington, Md., he passed for 38 touchdowns and ran for 13 touchdowns and set a Maryland public school record with 7,371 career passing yards.
But when he got to Florida, the spot he was best suited for on offense was occupied by a guy named Percy Harvin.
The Gators needed help at defensive back in the worst way, so Haden said, “Why not?”
It’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made and hasn’t turned out too bad for Florida, either, when you look at the Gators’ secondary. It’s been one of the best in college football over the last two seasons, and Haden has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the college game.
After becoming the first true freshman to start at cornerback on opening day in Florida history, he’s been there ever since and will make his 36th consecutive start Saturday against South Carolina.
He’s third on Florida’s team this season with 44 tackles, is good enough in coverage that very few teams challenge him and is also a mainstay on special teams.
How many All-SEC cornerbacks play on the punt block team, the kickoff team and the punt team?
“At Florida, it’s a privilege to play on special teams,” Haden said.
I caught up with Haden earlier this week to get his thoughts on the Gators’ pursuit of a second straight national championship and his development into one of the top players in the league:
How much do you think back to your growing pains as a freshman when teams were throwing the ball all over the field against your secondary?
Joe Haden:That’s just something we had to go through. We had so many young guys back there and really didn’t know what we were doing. It’s the first time I’d ever really played cornerback and I was going up against all these great players. But it made me better. It made us all better. You learn to forget about the last play and concentrate on the next play in a hurry.
How much has this defense evolved this season from where you guys were back in September?
JH: I think at the beginning of the season were we like, ‘OK, everybody’s back. We’re going to be a good defense.’ We’ve always had confidence, but we weren’t doing the little things like we were doing last year, like running to the ball and going all-out on every play. I think we are now. We’re flying to the ball, getting a lot of three-and-outs and forcing turnovers.
Do you feel like the defense is finally back to full strength now with Brandon Spikes returning to the lineup this week and the fact that some of those defensive linemen are now healthy?
JH: There haven’t been many games this year where we had all our top guys out there. But I think we’re starting to get there now, and that’s going to give us a push these last few weeks.
Urban Meyer says you could be an All-SEC performer on offense if you were playing on that side of the ball. What kind of offensive player do you think you would be, and where would you play?
JH:I’d probably be playing slot receiver. When I first came to Florida, I was going to be playing the same position as Percy (Harvin), so I would have been his backup. I like Percy, and he’s a great player. But I didn’t want to sit and watch him play.
Do you miss offense much?
JH: Of course I do. When we go team against our second-team defense in practice, I try to get on the scout team offense. I just have to prove to everybody that I’ve still got it.
You sort of went through this last year where you already knew you were in the SEC championship game but still had some games to play. Does it have a different feel going through that this time?
JH: The big difference is that we don’t have a loss. We haven’t tasted a loss this year. We’d tasted one last year, but are undefeated this time. That’s the way we want to keep it. That’s one of our goals, to get through this season unbeaten and become the first Florida team to do that.
Is it hard not to want to see what Alabama is doing every Saturday, knowing that you guys are going to be playing them here in a couple of weeks?
JH:Oh yeah. The LSU game, we were trying to watch as much of the game as we could before our game, and the coaches were cutting all the TVs off and all that. But you definitely watch them, especially if you’re a fan of the game. You want to see how good they are, who you’re going to be guarding and stuff like that.
Do you get the feel that the rest of the country is rooting against the SEC, hoping that both you and Alabama go down?
JH: Yeah a little bit. But if you watch Alabama, they find a way to win their games, and we do the same thing. I’ve also got my boy on that team, (Javier) Arenas, and I hope for the best for him. I just want it all to be settled in the SEC championship. That’s the way it should be.