Florida Gators Linebackers – 2010 vs. 2011

One Eyed Willy and I continue to run through the positions, comparing this year’s roster to that of 2010. To read past installments, click each position: quarterbacks, running backs and fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line.

2010: Lorenzo Edwards – SR, Brandon Hicks – SR, A.J. Jones – RSR, Jon Bostic – SO, Dee Finley – SO, Scott Peek – RSO, Gideon Ajagbe – FR, Neiron Ball – FR, Jelani Jenkins – RFR, Darrin Kitchens – FR, Ronald Powell – FR, Michael Taylor – FR
Preseason Rating: A
Postseason Rating: C
It would take a lot to convince me to give the Florida linebackers anything less than an A before the start of the 2010 season. Actually, no; you couldn’t convince me they didn’t deserve an A. I would stand my ground on that one. Brandon Hicks had been solid all-around for quite some time and was poised to take a leadership role. A.J. Jones had made some big plays over his career and was something of an under-the-radar type. Jon Bostic seemed to have the potential to be Johnny Rutledge, Andra Davis, Channing Crowder, Brandon Siler, and Brandon Spikes all rolled into one. We were about to see all-world Jelani Jenkins join their ranks. And add the possibility of the nation’s top recruit in Ronald Powell alternating between defensive end and linebacker and you had possibly the best unit on the team. Then something strange happened.
The linebackers disappeared.
I’ve been very careful to not place complete blame on the Gators’ invisible linebackers on anyone in particular, and for good reason. I really don’t know what happened. Some have said individuals like Bostic and Jenkins haven’t lived up to the hype. Some even remarked that Powell had an underwhelming freshman season. I’d argue with you on that for one huge reason: coaching.
Sure, each and every one of the players named above could have performed better. There’s no denying that. However, I have to look at the other piece of the puzzle and that piece is coaching. What was drawn up for these guys? Bostic wasn’t missing tackles on every other play; he was lined up ineffectively. Linebackers were sent on blitzes when the offensive formation or down and yardage to go didn’t warrant it. Although overall play could have been better, coaching contributed greatly to holding the unit back. Many times, they were removed from the play before the play even began.
Due to all of this, the unit gets a C and some are probably even asking “why that high?” I can’t give them a D for the sole reason that they did what they were told to do. They didn’t perform great and there were no All-Americans among them, but had they even lined up in a basic 4-3 zone or man formation for every single snap of the 2010 season, they would have performed better. Instead they were moved around the field while the defensive coaches tried to find an identity for their unit. The coaches get the D in this respect. The unit overall? C.
Jon Bostic – JR, Lerentee McCray – RJR, Scott Peek – RJR, Neiron Ball – SO, Dee Finley – RSO, Jelani Jenkins – RSO, Darrin Kitchens – SO, Ronald Powell – SO, Gideon Ajagbe – RFR, Graham Stewart – FR, Michael Taylor – RFR
Preseason Rating: A
It’s another A and for almost all the reasons it was an A before 2010. Bostic, Jenkins, and Powell have as much raw talent as any linebacking corps in the SEC. Add to them some players growing in the position and you have a unit that could be dangerously good. And yes, I include Powell here and even Lerentee McCray. Powell is playing the buck position and is mostly mentioned with the defensive ends, but if we understand the expectations of the position, he’ll be an LB from time to time. During recent practices, McCray has been moved from DE to LB and even been mentioned as a starter at times. He belongs here as well.
This unit has the potential to be the backbone of the defense as well as the captain of that ship. It needs to be again. Bostic has to take control as the main man in the middle. He needs to command the respect on and off the field that the former great Florida MLBs did. Jenkins needs to be the all-conference performer we all know he can be. And Powell – wherever he may be on the field – needs to enter beast mode and remain in it for 12 or 13 or 14 games.
The rest of the unit is solid in terms of potential, but lacking in terms of experience. None have significant playing time, but any could be asked to jump into an expanded role in 2011. If one of the starters goes down for any significant amount of time, that’s exactly what will happen. This unit, as much as any on the team, needs some blowout time early in the first few games so the backups can get in and get their feet wet. That’s almost a necessity with the linebackers.
One player I haven’t mentioned yet is Gerald Christian and for good reason. I have no idea where he will or won’t see the field. He’s a tight end. He’s a linebacker. He’s a tight end. He’s a linebacker. He’s a tight end. I know this happens with players from time to time because of talent at multiple positions or an injury forcing a move, but I hate it when it does. We may see Christian at LB at some point in 2011, but for now he’s a TE. I think.

South Carolina Gamecocks 36 – Florida Gators 14

GAINESVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 13: A South Carolina Gamecocks fan holds a sign claiming the SEC East Champions during a game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Gainesville, Florida. The Gamecocks beat the Gators 36-14. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)I debated skipping this altogether or forcing myself to put type to screen and go through with it. I decided, against my best judgment, to go for it and put something together. This is the result. Not very thought out. Just jerky rambling with as much coherency as I could muster without really editing myself. One could say it resembles the Florida offense at times. Little planning, just going out and winging it, and hoping for the best.

The best didn’t come against South Carolina in the SEC East championship game. It actually may have been the worst. That offensive performance was beyond offensive. For three quarters, the Gators did anything but help themselves on that side of the ball. By the time the offense did put anything together, it was only because the Gamecocks were in safe mode and were just doing what they could to get the game over. There were actually a few well-executed plays late in the game, but Florida fans should realize it wasn’t because the Gators changed what they were doing, it was because the Gamecocks had the game wrapped up and knew it.

Before the game, some said Florida didn’t deserve to be in the SEC Championship Game even if they beat South Carolina. I wouldn’t go that far, because even though the Gators didn’t seem worthy at times, they would have deserved it if they had technically won the SEC East. Then I watched them bow down to the Gamecocks and I thought different. Now I’m actually glad we won’t be subjected to an extra game in which we might have to watch that ineptitude. And I’m not blaming the players. I’m really wondering what the coaches are thinking.

Chris Rainey was a spark in his return to the Florida lineup, but in the game against South Carolina he was used too much. That may seem weird to read given that Rainey only touched the ball nine times on offense, but look at those nine times. Six were in the first quarter. In fact, those six were in the first eight offensive plays the Gators ran. During their first two possessions, Florida went three and out. Rainey touched the ball five times in those six plays. Why am I pointing this out? Because he was used too much early and then barely used again. Rainey averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 8.0 yards per catch yet only ran the ball five times and caught only four passes. The Gators made a commitment to involve him, then almost immediately abandoned it.

The running game as a whole was non-existent, despite the fact that Rainey had moderate success. Some will be quick to point that 25 of Rainey’s 32 rushing yards came on one carry, and that’s true, but why give him the ball only five times? The Gators never even attempted to control the clock. 20 rushing attempts (three were sacks) and 19:14 in time of possession. You don’t run 100 plays by running the ball the majority of the time, but Florida only managed 59 plays with their “high-octane” offensive game plan. I’m not a rocket scientist and definitely not a football coach, but the entire offensive flow to the game couldn’t be explained. Whether that’s on Urban Meyer or Steve Addazio, I don’t know, but I have a feeling one of them (and you can guess which one) may only have three games left in his current position.

On the defensive side of the ball, the same questions can be asked of the coaching. The Gators have a number of extremely talented linebackers. Jon Bostic, Brandon Hicks, Jelani Jenkins, A.J. Jones, and Ronald Powell would start anywhere in the country. The schemes Teryl Austin and company run have made them virtually invisible. Marcus Lattimore is an extremely talented player and I don’t want to take anything away from him (seriously, he’s an absolute stud and will be a superstar for many, MANY years), but part of his career-day could be attributed to the fact that if he got past the line, he didn’t get hit until he reached the secondary. Linebackers were nowhere to be found. I have to imagine that’s because of the schemes and not a lack of talent. When Ahmad Black leads the team in tackles (16) in a game during which the opponent runs the ball 54 total times, that’s not a good thing. Not a good thing at all. Black had a great game, but he shouldn’t have had to do so much.

That’s just about enough for now I think. I could talk about Andre Debose (who I hope returns every kick for the next three seasons). I could get into the offensive line. I could question going for it on fourth down. I could even turn red yelling about the same offensive problems the Gators have had for most of the season. But that’s enough. There’s still some season left. Still games to be played and plenty of more words to write. So I’ll end with this…

Congrats South Carolina. You’ve made it to Atlanta. Sure it was an off year for the SEC East, but you accomplished the number one goal. You’ll be playing in the SEC Championship Game against an offensive juggernaut, but one you’ve faced once before. For now, celebrate the accomplishment, take care of business against Clemson, and go into the SECCG strong.

The Bull Gator (3/18/10)

Florida’s pro day has come and gone and the new and improved Tim Tebow was on display.  Scouts believe Tebow has worked well on his release and his footwork and probably improved his draft stock.  He keeps the ball higher when he drops back and is getting rid of it quicker, but Tebow still has a tendency to drop it before he makes a throw.  He’s getting there though and a number of coaches were impressed with the former Gator quarterback.  Two other former Florida defenders improved their draft stocks as well as both blazed through the 40-yard-dash.  Cornerback Joe Haden may have solidified himself as a top 10 pick with times of 4.39 and 4.41.  Many thought Haden would drop in the draft after posting a 4.57 at the NFL Combine, but that time doesn’t seem important now that he has shown what he can really do.  Carlos Dunlap also impressed with times of 4.57 and 4.59.  Great times for someone with his size.  Dunlap warrants a good, long look from anyone picking in the first round.  The only former Gator that didn’t seem to really help himself on Wednesday was Brandon Spikes.  Spikes didn’t run very fast, although I’m not sure if many expected him to, but is still seen as a special talent.  He could definitely be a case of someone who plays much faster than he runs in drills.
As expected, Urban Meyer is back as the head coach of the Florida Gators.  After a vacation or leave of absence of sorts (we should really call it a scaling back of involvement), Meyer is back in the driver’s seat and feeling well.  He won’t mention much about his health other than to say he’s doing fine.  And we shouldn’t expect him to comment on it too much anytime soon.  Meyer is tight-lipped about his health and he should be.  At this point in spring practice, Meyer takes on more of an observatory role.  This time of year gives him a chance to see how his assistant coaches interact with players and how all of the new faces get acclimated to the Gators’ system.  Many seem to think 2010 will be a transition year for Florida, but Meyer believes there is still plenty of talent in Gainesville and the Gators will be ready to compete in the fall.
SI.com’s Andy Staples shared his thoughts on the upcoming season in the SEC.  Among them was a belief that the East could be a little more open than the past few years.  While I will admit Florida will be entering a period of adjustment, the level of talent and coaching staff should assure the Gators won’t exactly get off track either.  One interesting point Staples makes about Florida is that the Gators need to find a way to get four – count ‘em, four – linebackers on the field at once.  There were rumors of Florida converting to a 3-4 defense when George Edwards was the coordinator (Everyone remember that week? Fun times!).  But Edwards left and was replaced – if you can call it that – by Teryl Austin who has mentioned there will be a few tweaks although he won’t overhaul the defense Charlie Strong perfected.  With the talent at linebacker, he may have to change more than he planned though.  Brandon Hicks and A.J. Jones have plenty of experience and should see the field a lot, but Austin won’t be able to keep Jon Bostic or Jelani Jenkins on the bench either.  I can’t be the only one drooling at the thought of Bostic and Jenkins on the field at the same time.
B.J. Daniels’ recently repaired non-throwing shoulder won’t keep him out of spring practice after all.  The USF quarterback will be doing pretty much everything during practice except taking hits.  You probably don’t want your starting QB, and the only one with any substantial experience, taking too many hits this far ahead of the season anyway.  Being able to do basically everything else will be extremely beneficial for Daniels as he learns the offense under new head coach Skip Holtz.  Daniels is still developing as a quarterback and a leader and this spring is really his chance to step and take over the Bulls’ offense.  Exciting things are coming and hopefully fans won’t have to wait too much longer for that first Big East championship season.
The List: I’ve given up attempting to come up with some catchy name for this.  Sometimes simplicity is the way to go.  So it’s The List.  Nothing fancy or memorable.  Sort of like the list itself.  Today’s list focuses on that man who improved his throwing motion.  Clip #1 is a quick shot of that new motion that’s all the rage.  It’s just a glimpse, but maybe you X and O junkies can fully appreciate what has changed.
1. The new, improved Tim Tebow.

2. No list would be complete without the pledge.
3. A little practice Tebow.
4. The ad the world lost its mind about.
5. Tebow vs. Eric Berry. Surprised existence didn’t end after this collision.
The Sixth Man: Despite losing to NC State in the first round of the NIT, we have to give a big round of applause to the USF men’s basketball team for the season they just completed.  It’s easy to assume nothing out of the Bulls.  Since the move to the Big East, they’re just not expected to compete.  The size of the school should allow USF to build something over time and have a decent season now and then, but I’m not sure if anyone really saw this season as being the one in which they broke out.  At times, there were serious talks about the Bulls possibly making the NCAA Tournament.  As you know, they didn’t.  But an NIT appearance shouldn’t be seen as a letdown.  This program is headed in the right direction under Stan Heath and if Dominique Jones returns, the Big Dance could definitely be in sight for next season.  Watching the Bulls improve over the course of this season was exciting and has fans actually looking forward to the future.  Good job men, you should be proud.

Michael Taylor Finally Becomes a Florida Gator

At least publicly. Privately, Westlake (Atlanta, GA) linebacker Michael Taylor committed to Florida during his official visit over a week ago, but he wanted to speak with the coaches who recruiting him at Tennessee before making the switch.  Taylor had been committed to the Vols for five months before jumping ship to the Gators and wanted to ensure the coaches knew why.
Since Lane Kiffin abruptly left Tennessee for USC, there has been speculation over Taylor’s confidence in his commitment to the Vols.  However, he had actually pledged himself to Florida before Kiffin was gone.  Taylor cited a better feeling from the Gators then he ever got from the Vols.  A feeling that made him want to become part of what could be one of the best top-to-bottom recruiting classes we’ve seen in quite some time.
In Taylor, the Gators get an undersized, but surprisingly quick inside linebacker Rivals.com rated as the nation’s 190th-best prospect.  At 6’1”, 205 lbs., Taylor may be small, but adding bulk isn’t something to worry about.  Take a look at A.J. Jones.  Jones was listed at 182 lbs. when he came in as a member of the 2006 recruiting class.  He now measures in at 226.  Taylor will be able to make up for his small size with his superior athleticism.  Don’t be surprised if when he does hit the field (most likely in the 2011 season), he’s much closer to 220 and hasn’t lost a step.
Taylor’s commitment gives Florida 25 members of the 2010 recruiting class, 11 of which are already enrolled.  There may be a defection here or there before National Signing Day, but with a goal of somewhere in the ballpark of 28, the Gators appear to be close to closing the doors.

Florida Gators 41 – Georgia Bulldogs 17

Tim TebowRiley Cooper.  The offensive line.  Jermaine CunninghamCarlos DunlapBrandon SpikesRyan StamperAhmad Black.  It’s hard declaring who was the most valuable player in Florida’s 41-17 thrashing of rival Georgia.  Tebow would be an obvious choice.  Spikes a perfect selection as well.  But we’ll go ahead and give the game ball to Tampa’s own A.J. Jones.  Very quietly Jones has put together a superb season amplified by Saturdays’ performance in which he totaled five tackles, two for loss, two interceptions, one pass breakup, and one sack.  A.J. Jones, you are a star and have thusly been recognized.
Not only did the Gators beat one of their chief rivals by 24 points, but they instilled confidence in the coaching staff, fans everywhere and, perhaps most importantly, themselves in a commanding overall performance.  Florida struck early on offense – getting out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter – and the defense held tight, allowing the Gators to keep their lead throughout.  After Georgia pulled to within four early in the second quarter, Florida kept on the throttle and pulled away, never letting the Bulldogs back in it.  After the win (coupled with South Carolina’s loss to Tennessee later in the day), the Gators punched their ticket to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game by wrapping up the East.
That whole throwing to Cooper over and above anyone else not named Aaron Hernandez might not be such a bad thing.  Dude can catch.  And run.  And block.  Starting to think a career in football…and baseball…might not be entirely out of the realm of possibility (and starting to think I use that phrase entirely too much).  To you Riley, a quote: “ONE HAND ON YA!”
Speaking of those other receivers, David Nelson and Deonte Thompson did both tally three catches a piece.  Not mind-blowing, but season-highs for both.
And yes, that was Tebow lining up under center in the red zone.  There may be something to this whole newfangled scheme with the quarterback not lined up in the shotgun.  Gives defenses a little something to think about and seems to be working just dandy.
Sorry Bulldog fans, but we have to go ahead and mention it.  In the second quarter, #15 passed Herschel Walker as the SEC’s all-time rushing touchdown leader.  Tebow added another later in the game to push his career total to 51.  Many Georgia supporters will point to the five TDs Walker scored in bowl games that weren’t added to records at the time and to be honest, they actually have a point.  So let’s add them.  Walker is at 54.  Tebow at 51.  Tebow is now listed in the record books – after all, it’s not his fault the rules for statistical tracking were changed – but this Gator fan will at least acknowledge the extra five Walker scored.  With six games left in Tebow’s career, we’ll see if he can surpass the larger number.
The defense did its job, holding the Bulldogs to 17 points, 286 yards, and going on a linebacking interception party.  The offense did as well, putting up 34 points (the other seven were courtesy #51) and surging ahead when Georgia pulled close in the second quarter.  Caleb Sturgis proved he’s the kicker.  And there was even a glimpse of the upcoming Mike Gillislee show.  Overall good win and one that propels the Gators into the last few games of the regular season on a positive note.

Joe Haden and Major Wright the Latest Florida Gators to Catch Flu

Two of Florida’s 28 star defensive backs are the latest Gators to develop flu-like symptoms (Isn’t a hangover a flu-like symptom? If so, I better take today off.). Sure-tackling cornerback Joe Haden and boom-inducing safety Major Wright both missed practice on Thursday after coming down with a case of the aches. Despite not feeling well, newly-minted coach of the decade Urban Meyer expects both to be ready to go Saturday against Kentucky. And if they don’t, well who knows what could happen. Meyer sure doesn’t like the thought of that: “If Haden isn’t going, I’m not going.”

A number of other starters who have been under the weather are getting better or have beaten the sickness altogether. Jermaine Cunningham, Jeffery Demps, and Aaron Hernandez all appear as if they’ll be full speed and ready to go against the Wildcats and A.J. Jones looks like he’s improving. No word on how some of the backups that had taken ill are doing.

In other injury news, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been tender, but should still be ready to go against Kentucky. It’s game four already and time for Spikes to step up and show his All-American status. The defense has played great in the first three games, but they’ll need their leader to keep it up as they get into the depths of the SEC schedule. Luckily for the Gators, linebacker depth is a close second to safety depth on the wow meter. (H/T: One Eyed Willy)

A Look at Depth Charts: The Florida Defense

After covering the offense, I’m moving on to the defense. Considering it returns all 11 starters, this wasn’t too difficult to put together, but there are definitely a number of second-teamers with starting experience that could make a push for serious playing time.

Players that could assume a starting role sometime during the season are in italics.

Florida’s Defense

Defensive End – Jermaine Cunningham (SR)
Defensive End – Carlos Dunlap (JR), Justin Trattou (JR)
Defensive Tackle – Lawrence Marsh (RJR)
Defensive Tackle – Terron Sanders (RJR), Omar Hunter (RFR)
Middle Linebacker – Brandon Spikes (SR)
Outside Linebacker – Brandon Hicks (JR), A.J. Jones (RJR)
Outside Linebacker – Ryan Stamper (RSR), Dustin Doe (SR)
Cornerback – Joe Haden (JR)
Cornerback – Janoris Jenkins (SO)
Safety – Ahmad Black (JR)
Safety – Major Wright (JR)
Nickel Back – Will Hill (SO)

Some notes on the defense…

Trattou actually started 13 games at defensive end during the 2008 season and could be on the field for the first snap during a number of games again in 2009. But the two most talented ends are Cunningham and Dunlap and overall, they should see the most time on the field.

Marsh and Sanders did their jobs last season, but coaches are looking for the interior linemen to make more of an impact. Those two should be the starters again when the season begins, but look for Hunter to push them. And we may even see Gary Brown get some important time as a true freshman.

A number of outside linebackers could see action this year and the Gators wouldn’t miss a beat. Doe, Hicks, Jones, and Stamper all have experience starting. Look for a number of others to also get time in 2009.

Although Hill is a monster talent, Black and Wright (especially as the season progressed) played too well to be unseated easily. However, coaches will figure out a way to get Hill on the field as much as possible. He will be a star of the special teams again and should be the primary nickel back.

TBG’s MVPs: Florida Linebackers

Sorry for the delay. I’ll be a little quicker in getting through the rest of these.

Brandon Spikes – 12 pts. (4 first-place votes)

There was absolutely no debate on this one. Florida has had a run a very good middle linebackers lately and Spikes is just the next in line. After a solid sophomore year, Spikes broke out as a junior in 2008. His inspired play led the defense to a dramatic turnaround. Surprisingly Spikes returned for his senior season, giving everyone no reason to think the defense won’t get even better.

One-Eyed Willy: “Do I really need to give any stats? Ok, I do. 93 tackles (led team), 8 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, 2 of which were returned for TDs (led team), 1 bone crushing hit and subsequent taunt of Mr. Knowshon Moreno, and 1 shanked punt in celebration. Nuff said.”

2. Ryan Stamper – 6
3. Brandon Hicks – 4
4. A.J. Jones – 2

As for the 2009 season…

Brandon Spikes – 12 (4)

2. Ryan Stamper – 5
3. Brandon Hicks – 3
4. Dustin Doe/A.J. Jones – 2

Up next: Defensive Backs