The group played well in 2011, but missed a bit of moxy and flash with the lack of big hits that have been synonymous with gator linebackers like Brandon Spikes, Brandon Siler, Channing Crowder, and the list goes on. Head coach Will Muschamp and linebacker coach D.J. Durkin would like to see some of that return along with the unit playing solid all around. It starts in the middle.
MIKE (MIDDLE LINEBACKER)
Jon Bostic (SR, 61, 245) is the undeniable starter in the middle and has 19 starts and 38 games played notched on his belt. Bostic has terrific size and really good speed, and at times he looks shot out of a cannon to meet the ball carrier. He finished with a 9 tackles in 2011 and has 169 career tackles, When asked to play in the passing game he does well and has three interceptions to his name. He also has 12 tackles for loss in his career. What we have not seen much from in Bostic is that big time de-cleating hit on the ball carrier that he meets in the hole and sends sprawling on his back. Maybe that comes when the defensive line is doing a better job of playing assignments which we saw a great deal of improvement on. Whenever it happens, we need to see it.
Michael Taylor (SO, 6-0, 235) is that guy. He plays the middle tough and he will absolutely come in and knock the snot out of the ball carrier. Taylor played in 12 games a year ago in a backup role and on special teams. He averaged a very nice three tackles a game for someone that never started at the position.
Inevitably, Taylor is the smallest of all the linebackers on campus and he was beaten in the passing game a couple of times last year and showed that he isn't so fleet of foot. Still, this is a guy that would be fun to watch more often and you would think his ratio of tackles to time played on the field might merit him a little more of a work load. It will be interesting to see how big Taylor can get moving forward.
Graham Stewart (SO, 6-1, 245) had all of one tackle a year ago and also finished the season scoring a touchdown in the Gator Bowl victory over Ohio State on a blocked punt. He played in 12 games as a frosh and the word around the yard a year ago is that Stewart was a bit surprising with his athletic ability at linebacker.
His athletic ability could see him playing a little bit of outside linebacker as well and his size could mean some at SAM. Stewart now has the rookie year behind him and this spring is when you hope he makes tremendous strides.
Antonio Morrison (FR, 6-2, 215) is a MIKE that is already on campus and is that guy that will knock your block off. Morrison play with a mean streak and loves the big hit. If there is a question about him right now, it is that he came in a little undersized from what was expected. If he can have a quality spring, it may allow for others to move around and help with depth at other positions.
SAM (STRONG SIDE LINEBACKER)
The SAM linebacker in this defense is going to be asked to play a lot of the BUCK role as well at times. The inter-change ability of the two positions make them much more of a threat against offenses that rely on personnel to out play teams. The returning starter is Lerentee McCray (SR, 6-2, 250) and he has five starts and 30 games under his belt. He finished with 24 tackles a year ago and a very nice 7.5 tackles for loss. McCray is a great straight ahead runner and that makes him very dangerous as a pass rusher, which I expect to see him doing more of 2012.
His size makes him a wanted man in the defense, but he has to figure out a way to stay healthy. Another spring in the defense can only be a good thing for McCray as he earns to make himself more versatile as a linebacker and a pass rusher.
The surprise of pre-spring is something that we thought could happen, but are always excited when it actually does. Neiron Ball (SO, 6-2, 235) is returning to the football field after a medical condition that nearly cost him his entire career. It is a tremendous blessing for the player as much as the team and he is a guy that physically really fits the bill of what they are looking for.
Ball is a guy that can play much above the 235 pounds listed above and I wouldn't be surprised if he shows up closer to 250 than 235. He played in 10 games as a true freshman and had 12 tackles mainly on special teams where he was a star.
There will be no doubt some rust, but ball's return allows for some movement and flexibility this spring with others, but he should mainly stay at the SAM linebacker position.
Gideon Ajagbe (SO, 6-3, 238) is still a bit of an unknown and has played In four games without registering any stats yet. Ajagbe is big and athletic, but hasn't shown that killer linebacker instinct yet for these coaches on the practice field.
WILL (WEAK SIDE LINEBACKER)
Jelani Jenkins (JR, 6-2, 235) was awarded with ALL-SEC Freshman awards in 2010 and really hasn't looked back. He isn't blessed with great size, but plays the game aggressively and definitely plays bigger than he is. Nobody can question his speed as he flies around the field and always seems close to the ball. Jenkins has 153 tackles in the last two years, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven pass break ups, two interceptions, and four sacks.
If there was one serious knock on Jenkins it is that he dropped about five sure interceptions in 2011. Working on that this spring would seem to be something to look forward to. Jenkins is also getting bigger which is something he was stressed not to do in previous seasons but seems to be happening now.
Darrin Kitchens (JR, 6-2, 235) is guy that we moved from the SAM backer spot to the WILL , but will have to see what happens when the pads come on. Kitchens has one start to his game, but came in for an injured Lerentee McCray last year and led the team in tackles with 12 in the contest. He has 23 tackles in two years of limited playing time.
Kitchens seems versatile enough to change positions and the Gators need to find some depth again in 2012. He is an athletic guy that should be able to play in space with the WILL backers.
That is it for the spring, but the Gators should welcome in a trio of guys in the fall that have a chance to add to the defense in 2012. Jeremi Powell is a WILL linebacker that can fly around the field. Dante Fowler is a perfect SAM linebacker with his size, ability to play in space, and his nice pass rushing ability as well. Brian Cox is another SAM / BUCK player that has shown versatility in his game.