Three freshmen should be up for post-season awards

Playing time for true freshmen is often a performance based promise by college recruiters. The expectations of those freshmen vary, depending on the depth chart and their physical, mental, and emotional maturity. This season the University of Florida has a trio of freshmen who have entrenched themselves atop the depth chart.

Two of those true freshmen (Kyle Jackson and Tate Casey) have made the most of their limited opportunities in the first half of the season to get the bulk of their playing time after game five, while the other (Brandon Siler) has been a force from early on, kicking the door of the depth chart wide open as he has made himself a presence to be reckoned with.

BRANDON SILER: Despite not assuming the role of a starter until pressed into duty late in the season, Brandon Siler ranks twenty second in the Southeastern Conference in total stops with 59. You could say that Siler represents a third of this unit. He is third on the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and quarterback hurries. Siler has an absolutely wonderful knack for fighting off the blocks of offensive linemen and getting to the ball. He also demonstrated the ability to drop into coverage. He has improved in securing the zone.

The Orlando Evans High School graduate played a key role as a reserve in the first few games but was pressed into the starting lineup when the linebacking corps suffered a rash of injuries. He recorded six tackles in the season opener against Eastern Michigan, second best on the squad.

Some of his best performances have been against Florida's biggest rivals. Siler had seven tackles against LSU, including a sack and a tackle for loss. He led the Gators against Georgia with seven stops and a quarterback hurry. He was second in tackles against Vanderbilt with 10. He led all defenders in the South Carolina game with 14 tackles, among them 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a deflected pass. He should be considered for the SEC Defensive Player of the Week Award for the performance.

Siler is especially valuable for his ability to play everywhere from the Mike to the Will. A Florida linebacking crew of Channing Crowder, Earl Everett, and Siler would make an incredibly talented unit for 2005. Like his mentor Crowder, Siler gives the Gators a second backer who can play inside.

Considering Florida's depth woes at linebacker, Siler's high school resume' and athleticism made the redshirt option laughable. From the moment he lined up in August, there was no question that he would be a player. You could also tell that he was a fast learner. When recruiting heats up keep this in perspective: Siler was a second team All-State selection.

POST SEASON AWARDS OUTLOOK: I expect Siler to receive the Southeastern Conference Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Award and receive First Team Freshman All-American Team honors by all of the post-season award publications.

TATE CASEY: Unlike Siler and Jackson, Casey wasn't especially impressive in his role with the Florida offense during August practice. His early season role was limited mostly to special teams, but as the season progressed and the Gators needed a pass catcher at tight end, his role expanded. He is a tremendous athlete who has the ability to run and he is sure-fingered, catching most anything thrown his way. His aggressive nature makes up for a lack of bulk when it comes to blocking.

Casey caught his first pass of the season for a touchdown against LSU. It was a simple crossing route from three yards out. His second reception came against Georgia when the Florida offense needed bailing out. Stuck at their own ten yard line and facing a third and one, offensive coordinator Larry Fedora called Casey's number and the 6-6, 219-pounder from Texas hauled in a 25-yard pass. The play gave Chris Leak and company some breathing room. When Florida's rally stalled three plays later, punter Eric Wilbur was able to pin Georgia back at its own eight. Florida used the field position turn around to start a rally from down, 21-7.

Casey caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Leak when Florida trailed Vanderbilt 17-14 in Nashville. Casey followed that up with a career best performance against South Carolina last weekend. He caught two passes for 28 yards, both for scores. His first came on a play action pass over the middle. His second was on the same crossing route that put him in the end zone against the Tigers.

Casey's numbers for the season are five catches for 82 yards and four touchdowns, giving the Longview High School grad an 80 percent touchdown ration. That's probably best in the nation for anyone who's caught more than a couple of passes.

He lacks the kind of muscle and strength you want in a tight end that is expected to block as well as catch, but strength coach Rob Glass and his assistants will take care of the bulk. It will also be very interesting to follow Casey as he steps on the diamond to play baseball for Pat McMahon's Florida baseball team. His fast ball has been clocked in the nineties. We can expect Casey to be an outstanding player in the years to come.

POST SEASON AWARDS OUTLOOK: I would expect Casey to be named to the First Team All-SEC Freshman Team and garner enough votes to make the at least one publication's Freshman All-American Team roster. It may well be as a second or third team selection.

KYLE JACKSON: Jackson was impressive from the first week of August drills. He is a natural safety with great instincts. Even in August it was evident that the Neptune Beach Fletcher graduate was a ball hawk. There were several practice session where Jackson either picked off a pass or had the ball in his hands. It was my opinion then that he would see the playing field early and often, eventually earning a starting position.

He has played in nine games this season, but has only recently secured that starting role. Jackson accumulated five tackles and a pass break-up in his first start against Vanderbilt on the road. He had a tremendous follow-up performance against South Carolina, where he intercepted a pair of passes and separated a would-be receiver from yet another pass. Jackson finished with two tackles.

POST SEASON AWARDS OUTLOOK: I would expect Jackson to receive All-SEC Freshmen Honors, with no less than a second team nomination. He will be considered for SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors with two interceptions. Respectfully, however, that award should go to his teammate Brandon Siler.

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