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Florida's Teez Tabor is more than just talk

Jalen "Teez" Tabor isn't afraid to show his confidence. Some people mistake it for arrogance, but it's the bravado needed to do his job: shut people down.

Florida's 6-foot, 201-pound powder keg of emotion and talent has All-American tenacity because he can. He uses his witty, mostly NSFW words on the field to find that paralyzing edge, while fueling his own physical yet somewhat beautiful style of play that earned him first-team All-SEC honors as a sophomore last season.

"I'd say he would certainly be in the starting five if we were going to have a basketball team of trash-talkers," said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who signed Tabor in his final recruiting class at Florida in 2014.

Off the field, his words can pierce just as much. Just ask the Tennessee Vols.

Though he has played in only one game against Tennessee, Florida's 11 straight wins over Tennessee since the early 1990s has left Tabor with no choice but to troll Rocky Top.

On Twitter, he compared the Cleveland Cavaliers' struggles in the first two games of this year's NBA Finals against Golden State to Tennessee's fourth-quarter collapse to the Gators in last season's 28-27 thriller in the Swamp. In August, he went on national television with ESPN's Paul Finebaum to proclaim that Florida would extend its winning streak over the Vols to 12 this year. He mocked Tennessee being picked by ESPN's Football Power Index as the favorites to win the SEC East, called out Peyton Manning for never beating Florida and this past Saturday he simply tweeted "Yep it's a L" during halftime of Tennessee's 28-19 win over Ohio.

Saturday's matchup between No. 14 Tennessee (3-0) and No. 19 Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC), will bring plenty of SEC East Division talk, and a ton of Tabor talk.

"It's as simple as this: Tennessee plays Florida every year -- either in Gainesville or in Knoxville -- and at Florida, we win," Tabor told ESPN.com in August. "At the end of the day, the University of Florida is going to beat the University of Tennessee. That's the culture, that's history. That's what's going to happen.

"Some things just continue to take place, and one of those things is the University of Florida beats the University of Tennessee in football."

The braggadocious junior, who considers Steve Spurrier one of his idols, thrives on mental warfare. With a Deion Sanders-like attitude, Tabor isn't afraid to put himself on an island for criticism.

"I feel like I'm the best player in the country," he said. "They give the Jim Thorpe Award to the best DB, and I feel like if I do what I have to do, I don't see anybody else who can [win the award]. It shouldn't be an issue."


Merri Tabor attributes her son's fierce confidence to his early days of flag football in the blue-collar town of Bowie, Maryland, when a 4-year-old Tabor constantly yapped at the children across from him. When he wasn't calling out players, he was calling out the other teams' plays before they even got set.

"Before I knew my ABCs, I knew the offense was going to run a screen pass on third-and-9," Tabor said.

Tabor taught himself the game by watching the NFL Network. He dissected plays in his mind and eventually predicted plays of NFL teams as soon as the offenses lined up. "Madden" video games served as electronic practices before he trotted out for the real thing.

"All he's done is football for the past 18 years," Merri Tabor said.

Teez Tabor got his start as a talkative, Little League firecracker, but he cut his teeth during his four years at Friendship Collegiate Academy in southeast Washington, D.C. After spending most of his young academic life in private school, Tabor's mom enrolled him in football powerhouse Our Lady of Good Counsel High School.

However, when Tabor was in eighth grade, his mom met Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who was coaching Friendship's football team. Abdul-Rahim, now the defensive backs coach at Maryland, founded Friendship's football team in 2004 and Merri Tabor wanted her son to work with and learn from him.

Merri Tabor pulled her son out and moved into the district that housed Friendship, a charter school barely a decade old in an impoverished part of D.C., to subject him to a more humble lifestyle she hoped would present him with critical life lessons.

"I pulled him from what would have been a good situation to moving him somewhere where I thought he would fail," Merri Tabor said.

To make it at Friendship, Tabor had to survive both the streets and the Beach.

Friendship, located in D.C.'s Ward 7, exposed Tabor to the toxic environment of a destitute, crime-stricken area. Tabor lost two of his close friends to shootings.

He was jumped and robbed twice in high school, prompting his mother to have older students take him to the subway to get to school. She would pick him up after school and made sure he got to and from football practice without issues.

So Friendship Beach, the school's dirt practice field, became his warped sanctuary.

There was no locker room, so the players changed in nearby shipping containers. There were never enough helmets. There was no weight room, so they worked out in the school's halls. There was no home field, so every game was on the road.

Skin and hair caked with dirt that sometimes remained after showers. Cleats cracked broken glass and food wrappers. Rocks scraped knees and there was no give underneath. Sometimes administrators combed the field for needles before practice. A dead body was found there. Practices ran as the sound of gunshots popped within close proximity.

The Beach was a getaway for players hoping football would be a lottery ticket out of the horrors of the inner city.

"We wanted to practice at the Beach. We wanted to get dirty," Tabor said. "We felt like that gave us the edge."


Friendship humbled Tabor, who became nationally recognized with nearly 30 FBS offers. He didn't allow a pass to be completed on him his junior year, and the two-time Washington Post All-Met honoree broke up 17 passes with five interceptions as a senior on his way to becoming D.C.'s Mr. Football and ESPN's No. 4-rated cornerback prospect.

The slender five-star corner grabbed current South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson's attention. Robinson, who was Florida's defensive backs coach at the time, remembers seeing a tenacious, long corner with exceptional ball skills, tremendous instincts and the willingness to tackle of a linebacker.

Tabor dazzled live and his ability jumped off tape, but what really drew Robinson to him was his knowledge of the game.

"That tells me that in his spare time, he isn't playing video games, he's watching football," Robinson said. "That's more than half the battle, and that's not common anymore."

Robinson also admired the semi-truck-sized chip on Tabor's shoulder that he carried to Florida. With All-American Vernon Hargreaves III still around and leading the secondary, Tabor mostly listened, but he tried to outwork his teammates and take extra reps.

"Some things just continue to take place, and one of those things is the University of Florida beats the University of Tennessee in football."

Florida DB Teez Tabor in August

Having Hargreaves there was great from a learning standpoint, but it was Tabor's time with classmate Quincy Wilson that he said pushed his first-year progress. The two met during The Opening, a football camp at the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, the summer before their senior years. They marveled at each other, as they immediately compared their size and skill. Wilson wanted to show the Maryland guy what Florida speed was like, and Tabor wanted to show the Florida kid what D.C. toughness was all about.

"That was the first time I saw another corner with my build," Wilson said of Tabor.

They reunited at the Under Armour All-America Game practices, where again their competitiveness fueled their play. Of course, that bled over into Gainesville. Tabor said the two didn't talk much at first, subbing in and out of games without exchanging words. It wasn't bad blood, just two confident corners competing for a starting spot.

But that competition slowly turned into teamwork. The more they worked together, the better they got, but it wasn't until the latter part of the season that the two really started to bond. They shared advice and created an on-field chemistry that made it tough for coaches to keep them on the sideline.

"The fact that he was balling and I was balling, it made us better," Wilson said. "It was like, the coach had to play us."

Tabor said he first really came around to Wilson's partnership when Hargreaves tired in Florida's bowl game against ECU, allowing the two to take the field together. The two, sitting at opposite sides of the bench, leaned back, looked at each other and nodded in unison.

"It was like everything paused," Tabor said. "We were like, 'Let's go. We're in the game now.' "


Standing about five yards off Kentucky receiver Dorian Baker, his back to Florida's sideline, Tabor kept his eyes on Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker. As soon as the ball was snapped, Tabor bounced twice to his left, then bolted toward Baker as Barker released, corralling the pass before tumbling to the ground.

Deja vu.

"If I'm going to call it out when I'm 4 years old that they're going to call a screen play, how am I not going to be able to call it out now? It's just a natural instinct," Tabor said. "If you know it's coming, why not go pick the ball off?"

Tabor has shown fantastic flashes like that since his freshman year when he started five games, earning All-SEC freshman honors with 31 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks. He broke up eight passes and had a masterful one-handed interception against Vanderbilt. Last year, Tabor started nine games -- sometimes outplaying Thorpe Award finalist Hargreaves -- with an SEC-high 18 passes defended with four interceptions (two went for touchdowns).

He currently ranks 14th on Mel Kiper's Big Board, and probably will follow Hargreaves as a first-round pick if he leaves after the season.

"He is one of a kind," Hargreaves said of Tabor last season. "He's natural and can do some things that no one else can do on the field. You can't teach it and you can't coach it."

But Tabor doesn't think he has totally arrived, not like Hargreaves -- whom he looks up to like a brother. Tabor was snubbed from All-American consideration last year and didn't make the Thorpe Award watch list this summer. He blames himself. He blames the dropped interceptions and bouts with laziness in games.

Tabor thrives on chaos -- a blessing and a curse. His loud play can make for an even louder mouth that has gotten him in trouble, like when he talked so much trash to tight end C'yontai Lewis during two-a-days this fall that the two brawled with helmets and were suspended for the season opener.

On Twitter, he's as aggressive as he is on the field, on just about any topic. In a span of six months, he weighed in on the controversial Alton Sterling shooting, called out Lewis after their on-field scuffle and criticized Florida's athletic association after he was suspended for last year's Tennessee game, reportedly for refusing to take a drug test.

Tabor knows he can be controversial but refuses to censor his honesty. It's remarkably refreshing, even if you disagree with him.

"Why not speak when something's wrong?" Tabor said. "If something's done the right way, I always compliment it, but when something's wrong, that's when you have to say something."

Tabor does have a softer side. He consumes himself with community service work, including summer football camps with Abdul-Rahim back in Maryland. He wants to open a charter school in D.C., and he has taken the name "Teez" because his younger cousin gave it to him when he was in high school.

Merri Tabor worries her son is trying to do too much. But her brash child has become a face of Florida's football team. He conducted his own "media day" on Periscope when he didn't go to SEC media days, and head coach Jim McElwain, who is a fan of Tabor's self-confidence and "aggressive attitude," sent him on a personal publicity tour through New York.

Tabor respects the spotlight and loves the pressure. More important, he loves what he's doing.

"I'm just a young kid from [Prince George's] County Maryland who had a dream and is still chasing a dream," he said.