If anyone would have told you that the Gators would lose both starting linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jarred Davis during the season in 2016, you likely would have thought the Gator defense was in pretty big trouble.
Well it happened, and some young guys had to step up, and they did just that. Now, the Gators will reap the benefits of that early playing time heading into the 2017 season with a group of linebackers that has some experience and maybe more potential than we have seen at the position in a while.
That of course says a lot given what Davis and Anzalone did on the field, throw in the loss of Daniel McMillian to graduation as well and the hole in most seasons would be too great to fill. But oh, there is so much promise from glimpses of greatness among the returning players.
Spring football practice starts February 28 and we would be foolish not to mention the one guy that is an upperclassman. Redshirt Senior isn’t on scholarship, but he will factor in on playing time. Garcia surprised some by starting in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa and leading the defense when they needed the calls to be made on the field. He’s been around longer than the others, but has seen very little playing time on defense with the bulk of his playing time coming from special teams. He played in all 13 games in 2016 and finished the Iowa game with five tackles and played solidly.
Redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson is back after getting a great deal of playing time in 2016. Better on the outside than inside, he should get to play more of that natural position in 2017 and not forced into inside play because of injuries. He’s a hard hitter, but his best attributes are being able to run and cover. He played in 13 games and started in six of those as a redshirt freshman totaling 39 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, one sack, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and one fumble recovery on the year. A former quarterback in high school he arrived at Florida as a safety and has only played linebacker since the spring of last year. He has tremendous upside.
The pillar in the middle when the big guys went down last year was David Reese. Now a sophomore, Reese should be counted on to be the guy in the middle making the play calls and leading the defense, of course that would depend on Garcia as well. Reese played in 12 games a year ago and started in four of them. He finished with 49 tackles and two tackles for loss. A heady player, he also brings a hammer with him when he hits the ball carrier. He earned Freshman All-American honors from a couple of publications and Freshman All-SEC as well.
Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon played in the first two games of the season in 2016 and then had a hand injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. While he hasn’t gotten the redshirt clearance yet, that should come due to the timing of the injury. Moon had just two tackles in limited time, but before he went down, the staff and folks watching practice were raving about him, especially what he was doing as a true freshman that just arrived on campus a couple of months earlier. He’s longer and rangier than most of the other guys, but he’s instinctual and just a very good football player. Although he’s probably best suited to play on the outside than inside, Moon will get on the field this fall and a lot.
The ‘Hit Stick’ Vosean Joseph is back after finishing strong in his freshman season. Everyone will remember Joseph for the big lick he laid on LSU quarterback Danny Etling, but he also played some inspired minutes on defense to end the year and made several plays on special teams. There aren’t many that played with the tenacity that Joseph did and he got caught up in that a few times on special teams where he will have to be reeled back in a little bit. The sophomore-to-be played in all 13 games as a true freshman with his lone start coming in the Outback Bowl and totaled 13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one pass breakup, and one fumble recovery on the year.
Redshirt sophomore Rayshad Jackson got to see his most extensive playing time in the Outback Bowl, but did see the field, mostly on special teams, in nine games. Jackson had two tackles in 2016. He has the physical attributes and the mental part of the game is where he needs to pick things up a bit. This spring will be big in the development of Jackson.
True freshman James Houston IV is an early enrollee and will be available for spring ball, but expected to be non-contact throughout the month long practice series. A torn ACL last summer had Houston miss his entire senior campaign, but he has grown a bit and is listed at 233 pounds and may be bigger than that. Look for Houston to be able to make some noise in June more than this spring, but he can spend his time learning the defense with the rest of the guys in the next month and a half.
BOTTOM LINE: You can’t expect this group to play all the time at the level of Anzalone and Davis, but it is a deeper group to start the season and the talent is there to be just as good once they really mature into the positions. This should be a unit that really gets better as the season progresses and is pretty good when the season starts.