FOOTBALL: Linebackers Pre-Season Preview

At the start of last season, the Gator LB corp. seemed destined for mediocrity. The terms dominating and overpowering didn't really come to light as the group was highlighted by Matt Farrior, Reid Fleming, and Todd McCullough. Gator nation was buzzing though about the potential of two freshmen. Channing Crowder coming off a knee surgery, and Earl Everett showed up weighing 210 pounds.

What a difference one year can make. The phrase "addition by subtraction" can be used to label this year's group of linebackers who are set to wreak havoc on the Southeastern Conference.

I can't recall how many times last year I had to stomach watching Farrior and Fleming shoot themselves in the foot. For all the "heart" that Reid Fleming played with, he lacked another five letter word called "skill." At the end of the day, Fleming finished the 2003 season, registering only 1 game of double digit tackles.

With the subtraction of the old number 40, I believe the new number 40 could make a bigger impact down the line. Freshman Brandon Siler is poised to push for some serious playing time this year. An incredible athlete, Siler recorded 197 tackles, 5 sacks, four interceptions, and four fumbles recoveries as a senior.

Moving on with the positive, SEC All-Freshman Team member Earl Everett has been a reason for optimism in this year's group as his potential showed last year. Everett and his playing weight has been the topic of many discussions for those in Gator Country, but it is confirmed that he is weighing upwards of 225 pounds as he told me in the spring.

"I am about 225. I plan on gaining at least 5 to 10 pounds before the season starts," he said. "It won't be that hard because we have a great conditioning coach, and I will be hitting the weight room."

It can be set in stone that Everett is going to be a force in the fall. Senior Travis Harris though is one of the leaders of the group. "We still have our leader Travis Harris and he has been helping us out a lot," Everett said. "We have a group of young guys emerging with the more reps we get, the better we are going to be."

Travis Harris has reportedly been a monster in the weight room since wrapping up the spring and has shown glimpses of the heat he could bring like in the Georgia game. If Travis can fine tune his speed, then the trio of him, Everett, and Crowder could dominate the SEC.

Not enough can be said of how much Channing Crowder means to this football team. The fans know it, the team knows it, and he knows it. A media darling and the first guy I go to for quotes, Channing is literally in the middle of it all. As long as Crowder can stay healthy this group of guys will definitely surpass last year's group.

The one area where the group is in trouble is depth, and the Orange and Blue faithful are very aware of this. McCullough should be fully healthy for the start of the season and will be prepared to fill in when needed.

For all the hype Taurean Charles has brought to the table, the light hasn't turned on yet. In fact he just about smashed that light with a half filled keg. It is all but certain that he is going to be kicked off the team and this is going to hurt a LB squad that only has 6 guys on scholarship.

With the departure of Charles and Howard Lingard, the depth problem is even more noticeable as freshman Javier Estopinan will be asked to step in along with Siler. How quick E-Stop picks up the defense and learns to read SEC offenses will dictate how effective he will be in 2004.

If injuries occur, the LB squad could easily be seen as the weak point of the defense, more so then the secondary. Perhaps Gator nation could see Eric Rutledge getting some playing time on the defense. If running teams are able to control the clock then this current core won't be able to get in fresh legs like last year.

My sleeper pick at LB is comparable to Deshawn Carter in the secondary and Clint Mitchell on the line. Sophomore Bryan Royal showed glimpses of Zach Thomas during the spring plugging up the middle and always being in the mix of things. He will see some time on special teams.

The key to this year's group will be staying healthy and communicating, BOTH on and off the field. The sky is the limit to what a healthy Channing Crowder, vocal Travis Harris, athletic Earl Everett, reliable Todd McCullough, and up and coming Brandon Siler could do in the SEC.

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