This is a team that is going to be forced to grow up quickly. An SEC schedule can age a freshman quicker than anything else. An SEC schedule can also decimate with injuries in ferociously played games. Zook has talent at linebacker and in the secondary. The problem is that he still doesn't have enough of it. He's a recruiting class away from having the numbers where he needs them to be.
But, if injuries can be avoided and the team grows up quick, the potential is there. Here is a look at the linebackers and the secondary.
There is good news and bad news at linebacker. The good news is that the seven scholarship linebackers on the depth chart are all very talented. The bad news is that only four of the top seven have experience and seven scholarship linebackers means a lean depth chart that can't afford any debilitating injuries.
In the spring, this position looked much better because of the emergence of Howard Lingard, the potential of Taurean Charles and the added dimension of walkon Richard Brown, a former AAA farmhand in the Yankees organization who was a football signee of Florida State back in 1996. Now with Lingard transferred out, Charles with an unresolved legal situation that could result in jail time or a long suspension, and Brown out for the year, depth becomes a critical issue.
The Gators will be helped by the fact that many teams will run some sort of spread offense which will eliminate the need for a third linebacker on the field, but if teams decide to pound it out on the ground, the depth factor could weigh heavily on the Gators' success. This is a position that is helped immensely by Coach Bill Miller, a former defensive coordinator at Miami and Michigan State who is very well respected as a teacher of fundamentals.
Sophomores Channing Crowder (6-3, 245) and Earl Everett (6-2, 228) are star quality, and Travis Harris (6-2, 249) was one of the top rated linebackers in the country when he signed with UF, so as a first unit, this group looks quite solid. Crowder had an all-star caliber year as a freshman and Everett played well despite being undersized (206) in year one. Crowder is bigger and faster as a sophomore. He is a playmaker who has the rare ability to instinctively find the football in traffic. Everett is a ripped 228 who hasn't lost a step in speed. Everett could be the X factor for the defense. His speed makes him a likely candidate to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks off the blitz. Harris spent last year at defensive end where he had some quality moments (he came up big in the Georgia game). His experience and physical strength should help him be strong against the run.
Of the four scholarship backups, Todd McCullough (6-5, 235, junior) brings experience and the ability to play all three linebacking positions. His bad shoulder has healed and he's recovering from a dinged ankle, but the extra week due to the cancellation of game one will only help him get ready. McCullough's versatility makes him the single most critical of all the Gator backup defenders. With Crowder suspended for the first game (now, Eastern Michigan due to the cancellation of the game with Middle Tennessee due to the hurricane), McCullough will start game one in the middle.
There is reason to be excited about the potential of the other three scholarship linebackers and a fourth, walkon Alvin Butler (6-1, 220, redshirt freshman), also could see the field. Brandon Siler (6-2, 230, freshman) will see the field early and often. He is a combination of speed and athletic ability that can't be kept on the bench and he is capable of playing both outside positions. Experience is his only detriment at this point. Javier Estopinan (6-1, 241, freshman) is a true middle linebacker who has an aggressive streak and a tough attitude. His days as a state championship heavyweight wrestler have prepared him for the contact he will see in the middle. Jarvis Moss (6-7, 228, redshirt freshman) is a converted defensive end who has Ted Hendricks size and speed. He's an exceptional pass rusher but he has to learn the nuances of playing linebacker. Butler brings smarts (1600 on his SAT) and toughness to the position. He'll be a contributor on special teams this year. Another walkon, Bryan Royal (6-0, 217, junior) fills out the depth chart.
This is another good news and bad news situation. The bad news is that four starters graduated from last year's secondary including first team All-America corner Keiwan Ratliff and three-year starter safety Guss Scott. The good news is that the young players who will be stepping in bring more overall speed and athletic ability to the table. Another area of good news is first year defensive backs coach Dan Disch, a very popular coach with the players who brings plenty of enthusiasm to the job along with solid credentials while in high school for developing Division I talent in the secondary.
The lack of experience in the secondary will require the front seven to step up the pressure on the quarterback. Meltdowns in the fourth quarter which resulted in losses against both Miami and Florida State can be directly attributed to the secondary being overextended because of a lack of pressure on the quarterback. With this year's secondary way behind last year's crew in terms of experience, pressure on the quarterback is going to be vital. Until this group grows in confidence and experience, pressure is going to have to help bridge some gaps.
Of the top eight defensive backs, there is only one experienced senior, Corey Bailey (5-11, 191), a fifth year safety who has been a solid if unspectacular contributor in the nickel package for three years. The other senior in the top eight is cornerback Reynoldo Hill (5-11, 185), long on speed and potential but totally unproven after an inconsistent year following his transfer from junior college.
Three players have stepped up at corner, Hill, sophomore Dee Webb (5-11, 190) and junior Vernell Brown (5-8, 155). Hill brings sprinters speed to the table and in his junior college days, he was a real ball hawk although he's shown a reluctance to break cleanly on the ball in the preseason. Webb has speed and good instincts but has had some inconsistency in the preseason. Webb's greatest need is confidence because the physical ability is definitely there. Brown has been the pleasant surprise of the preseason. After shuffling around from offense to defense his first two years, he's had a spring and a summer at the same position, so he's shown ability to make plays. During the final two weeks of Camp Zook, he was the most consistent playmaker among the defensive backs.
Behind the first three, the picture is a bit cloudy. Freshman Dawayne Grace (6-0, 175) is quite talented with good speed. He figures to be eased into playing time and by midseason, expect him to be on the field with a good bit of regularity. Junior Deshawn Carter (6-0, 211) is finally injury and illness free, but while the physical ability is evident, the lights still haven't gone on in the mental aspect of the game. Twins Jermaine (5-9, 180, sophomore) and Tremaine (5-8, 173 sophomore) will be special teams contributors for certain. Tremaine spent a good portion of Camp Zook running second team while Jermaine teams with wideout Jemalle Cornelius to form a fearsome punt blocking duo. Sophomore Nick Brooks (6-0, 194) has shown occasional flashes of potential, but perhaps is better suited to move to safety.
There is reason to be optimistic about the safety position. There is an infusion of young talent that makes this a position that should be one of the strongest on the team in the next two to three years. This is also a position of tremendous concern due to the overall lack of experience.
Bailey is the veteran of the group but he's best suited to play the nickel. Bailey's finest attribute is that he's a sure tackler. The other safeties with experience are junior Jarvis Herring (5-11, 201) and senior Zephrin Augustine (5-10, 192). Herring is a smart player whose best ability may be in knowing the defense well enough that he's like a coach on the field. Herring's playing time could be diminished as the season progresses by the play of the younger safeties. Augustine has been a special teams contributor and that is likely where he will see most of his playing time this year.
After those three, it's youth, inexperience but plenty of potential.
Terrence Holmes (5-11, 200, sophomore) is a former wide receiver who has shown ability to be an intimidating hitter and a good nose for the ball. He worked hard during Camp Zook to become the most consistent of the safeties. True freshman Tony Joiner (5-11, 190) picked up the defense quickly and by the end of the first week was moving players around who were out of position. He is a sure tackler with very good speed. If he doesn't start game one, he will certainly be in the rotation to see plenty of playing time. Another true freshman, Kyle Jackson (6-0, 191) showed the best instincts going for the ball of any safety on the team during Camp Zook. He has deceptively good speed and great timing going for the ball. During the preseason, he led the team in interceptions.