Camp preview: Linebackers

The linebacker position struggled and was mostly unproductive for Florida last season. The Gators don’t lose any heading into the 2014 season, but they have to make more plays for the defense to be better this year.

Before diving into the players, it’s a good idea to clear up how the Gators are using their linebackers. Will Muschamp mentioned in the spring that Florida played between 70-80 percent in the nickel formation, taking one of the three starting linebackers off the field.

The coaches haven’t made a public decision about how much they’ll be in the nickel or dime packages this fall, but it’s safe to assume the percentage probably stays the same with the depth in the secondary. Because of that, the Gators used multiple combinations of two-linebacker sets in the spring, trying to find which one worked best.

The leading tackler from last season is Michael Taylor, returning with 62 tackles last season. He is the vocal leader of the defense, and heading into his senior year, Taylor will be counted on for leadership on the defense. His biggest impact came in the run defense, and the Gators will count on him again there. He can struggle at times covering tight ends and doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with receivers.

Taylor’s value comes as a leader. The WILL and MIKE linebacker spots are basically interchangeable in what the Gators do, and Taylor makes sense to fill either of the roles. When the Gators use three linebackers, it makes a lot of sense for him to be one of them. He probably will still be one when the Gators are in the nickel, but that’s not guaranteed.

There’s really no other way to say it -- last season was a disappointment for Antonio Morrison. After his preseason arrest that led to a one-game suspension, it was almost like Morrison struggled to get going once he returned. He filled in for Jelani Jenkins during multiple injuries in 2012, and the defense didn’t miss a beat with him on the field. He delivered big hits and was always in position.

Last season, that wasn’t the case. He struggled to get off blocks and wasn’t anywhere near as disruptive as he was during his freshman season in 2012. The tackle numbers still look fine. He was second on the team with 56 tackles despite missing four games. But in order to make the Florida defense better this fall, Morrison has to be the disruptive player he looked like during his freshman year.

Few had as good of a defensive year as Jarrad Davis did last season. The numbers don’t show it -- he had 24 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble last year but that’s because the bulk of his playing time didn’t come until the second half of the year. He played in all 12 games, but he was playing almost exclusively on special teams during the first half of the season.

The first-team linebackers switched a lot during the spring, but Davis was probably the player to most consistently work with the first team. It would be surprising if he wasn’t a starter this year after the level he played at to end the 2013 season, as he became one of the few bright spots for the Gators on defense.

Neiron Ball returns for his final season. He has split time at defensive end and linebacker during his Florida career, and Muschamp mentioned him as a third-down pass rusher when he spoke at SEC Media Days. For that to be an effective role, Ball would need to be more disruptive. He had one sack and one quarterback hurry last season despite playing in every game.

There are two young linebackers recovering from ACL tears. Jeremi Powell and Matt Rolin are both expected to be fully healthy and cleared by the time fall camp roles around. They could compete for playing time at outside linebacker or a role on special teams.

Alex Anzalone battled a shoulder injury last season and needed surgery that caused him to miss the entire spring. He played as a freshman, seeing the field in big game on the defense, and could be counted on this fall, too.

A breakout candidate at the position is sophomore Daniel McMillian. A wrist injury kept him off the field when the position was thinned by injuries late in the year, but he also wasn’t ready to play. He needed to improve his understanding of the defense. That happened this spring. The coaches and player complimented McMillian for his work in the film room by himself.

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