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Expectations of UF DB Kaiir Elam soar during 2021 preseason

Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel

UF cornerback Kaiir Elam has never shied away from expectations, setting the bar extremely high for himself.

Elam is not the only one in 2021.

A season after Elam declared he wanted to leave school as the best to ever play the position for the Gators, the 20-year-old from South Florida has appeared on multiple watch lists for prestigious awards.

The 2021 Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Jim Thorpe awards each has placed Elam on their list of players expected to vie for their hardware. The Nagurski and Bednarik awards are given to the nation’s top defensive player while the Thorpe Award is set aside for the top defensive back.

Redshirt senior Ventrell Miller, the 2020 team’s leading tackler, has been named to the watch list for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.

Elam’s new coach, Jules Montinar, is not surprised by the preseason acclaim for Elam.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of his potential,” Montinar said. “First off, the kid’s very coachable. I love his attitude. He comes to work every day.”

Elam enters his third season in Gainesville aiming to scale a long list of UF greats and reach the summit at his position.

Elam, a former standout at The Benjamin School in Palm Beach County, entered last season proclaiming, “I want to be the greatest,” among the many Gators cornerbacks who made their mark.

Elam then stumbled out the gates before finding his footing to end 2020 as a first-team All-SEC selection and tied with Alabama star Patrick Sustain for the league lead with 13 passes defended.

Entering 2021 spring practices, Elam characterized his 2020 performance as “Not good enough,” adding, “I feel like I left some plays out there on the field.”

Elam was not alone.

Florida’s elite secondary play led the school to claim the fictional title DBU (Defensive Backs University). But the Gators’ suffocating style on the back end of the defense became a thing of the past in 2019 and 2020.

UF allowed 28 touchdown passes last season, the most in the SEC.

Elam plans to give the 2021 Gators a lockdown cornerback on the flanks and an overall leader on defense a season after UF allowed an average of 30.8 points — nearly twice as many points yielded per game than the previous season.

“I have to stay focused,” Elam said. “I’m human, so I’m going to make a mistake. Just keep getting better and bringing my teammates along with me.”

Montinar was impressed last spring with what he saw from Elam on and off the field.

“I can’t say enough great things about this kid because he leads by example,” Montinar said. “We’ll be in a meeting room, and some of our younger guys that haven’t learned this defense and they’re not taking notes. And this is Kaiir’s third or fourth time hearing this stuff, and he’s writing down everything us coaches are still saying.

“I think he’s a student of the game, and I’m really fired up about having him in the room.”

Head coach Dan Mullen let go secondary coaches Torrian Gray and Ron English after the defense’s miserable 2020 season. Mullen replaced them with Montinar, a Florida native who left USF to coach cornerbacks in Gainesville, and safeties coach Wesley McGriff, who spent the past two seasons at Auburn.

The new assistants inherit a group with many questions to answer during preseason practices but also ample talent and potential beyond Elam.

Junior cornerback Jaydon Hill impressed during the spring while teammates singled out five-star signee Jason Marshall. Trey Dean’s second year at safety is the 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior’s final opportunity to fulfill his potential. Sophomores Rashed Torrence II and Tre’Vez Johnson experienced plenty of growing pains in 2020 but will get a shot at redemption as likely starters in 2021.

But Elam pushes to be the tone-setter.

“Every time I step on the field I always want to keep getting better,” he said. “That’s my goal each and every day, just keep getting better no matter what I did last game.”

This article first appeared on . Email Edgar Thompson at .

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