GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Between talking smack, fighting at practice, getting suspended, buying a homeless man shoes, changing his name, intercepting a pass in his season debut and then helping deliver the best defensive performance in school history, Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor has been involved in a season’s worth of headlines the past two months.
There’s surely more to come.
The junior from Washington, D.C., is Florida’s most outspoken player and one of college football’s more intriguing personalities. He’s likely to take center stage Saturday when No. 14 Tennessee (3-0) opens Southeastern Conference play in Knoxville against the 19th-ranked Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) — the first time since 2006 that both teams have been ranked in the top 20 for their annual rivalry.
Tabor will be matched up against Josh Malone, who leads the Volunteers with nine catches for 196 yards and four touchdowns. Tabor welcomed the challenge.
“I want them to” throw my way, he said. “I mean, my mom always told me if you play with fire, you’ll get burnt. So …”
For Tabor, that’s far from bulletin-board material. After all, he boldly predicted a 12th consecutive win for the Gators during a television interview in August.
“It’s been the same thing happening for 11 years,” Tabor told ESPN. “The greatest indication of the future is the past. … Tennessee has come close (to winning) two years in a row, but close only works in horseshoes.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain was hardly surprised by Tabor’s comments.
“It will make for a good read; it will give you guys something to write about,” McElwain said. “I’m not into censorship, OK? At the same time, I’m not into giving guys bulletin-board material, but you can take that statement however you choose to take it. I’m sure they’ll put it up and blast it all over the world. Way to go. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll show up in Knoxville.”
Tabor has remained in the spotlight since, not always for something positive.
He was suspended for a week after getting into a fight with teammate C’yontai Lewis during practice in August. McElwain also suspended both players from the season opener against UMass.
A few days after the suspension, Tabor posted video on social media of him buying a homeless man shoes and giving him $20. Some questioned Tabor’s timing, saying he was merely trying to make up for the fight.
“I always feel like I want to help people who are less fortunate than I am,” said Tabor, who now goes by his nickname, Teez. “I come from the inner city where I see stuff like that walking to school. Just to give back, make his day, you know, a couple dollars and a pair of shoes for him is life-changing. We take for granted everybody in here got on a pair of shoes. Everybody in here has some money in their pocket.”
Without Tabor on the field, Florida allowed pass plays of 24, 30 and 53 yards against the Minutemen. Tabor returned the following week against Kentucky and quickly showed why he’s widely considered a first-round NFL draft pick in 2017. Tabor jumped a bubble screen before Drew Barker ever released the ball, bullying his way between two receivers, picking off the pass and setting up a touchdown in a 45-7 victory.
“Tabor is very, very explosive,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “He can play man coverage. He has great, great confidence, great break and drive on the ball.”
Florida’s defense was even better last Saturday against North Texas, allowing a school-record 53 yards on 50 plays.
The Vols should present a considerably tougher matchup for the Gators, who lead the nation in scoring defense (4.7 points), total defense (129.7 yards) and sacks (16).
They certainly won’t have to look very hard to find Tabor, who was suspended for last year’s game in Gainesville. He’ll be the one running his mouth, probably making plays and likely in the headlines again.
“You know, he’s gone through certain things, this and that, but as a player, as a person, Jalen’s grown up,” safety Marcus Maye said. “He’s doing very well, so I’m excited for him.”
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