Spring Evaluation: Linebackers

We continue our look at how the 2010 Gator defense shapes up heading into the off-season with part three of our five part series. It bears repeating that Florida faces a major challenge in rebuilding a defense that limited its first 12 opponents to 20 points or less and seven of them to 10 or less.

Florida had one of its best defenses ever in 2009 limiting opponents to about 100 yards on the ground and just 153 through the air. The Gators surrendered just 16 touchdowns in 14 games.

Today we take a look at linebacker, followed by cornerback and safety. In each installment we're trying to break it down very simply. We look at what each unit lost, the best returning player, other veterans needed to step up and coming attractions. For these purposes we'll consider the guys who enrolled early as "veterans" if they saw significant playing time this spring.


What was lost ---- The Gators say goodbye to three prolific performers at linebacker. Brandon Spikes belongs in any conversation about the best linebackers in UF history, but his senior year (68 tackles, 6.5 for loss) was not nearly as productive as junior (93, 8) and sophomore (131, 16) seasons. Still his leadership was off the charts and he'll be missed. Florida also loses Ryan Stamper (78, 5.5) who is a classic overachiever and Dustin Doe (51, 1.5) who, like Spikes has his best season as a sophomore (85, 5). This trio combined for 643 tackles in their careers.

Best returning player ---- This is a tough call but I have to go with A.J. Jones (37, 4.5) who has gone from undersized skinny guy to an excellent defender and playmaker. He was one of two players on the defense (Joe Haden was the other) to register at least three QB sacks and intercept three passes. He has been credited with 108 tackles in his career.

Other returning linebackers ---- Florida ended spring ball with four starters in three jobs. Brandon Hicks (32, 5) is an excellent player who just needs to stay healthy to have a big year. Jon Bostic (18) didn't get a ton of playing time as a freshman but that will change this fall. Jelani Jenkins was a special teams guy last fall, but he was all over the field this spring and the highly touted defender looks more than able to live up to all the hype. One of these guys won't "start", but all could. Florida also saw good things this spring from Brendan Beal and Lorenzo Edwards so there's plenty of depth. Dee Finley's transition from safety has not been a smooth one, but it's early.

Coming attractions ---- It's not likely the Gators will have much playing time for true freshmen, but they are bringing in three defenders who bring a lot of speed to the field and may bolster Florida's already superb special teams. Michael Taylor (6-1, 213) comes down from Atlanta as one of the top LB prospects in the country. The Gators also add what they believe are two vastly underrated players from South Florida in Gideon Ajagbe (6-2, 197) and Darrin Kitchens (6-3, 215).

The Bottom Line ---- When spring practices began this unit was one of the big question marks and for several reasons. Florida had lost three guys who made a ton of plays in their careers and brought in a new LB Coach in D.J. Durkin. Well it didn't take long for the new guy and his players to mesh and the LB unit had an excellent spring. As I wrote earlier, I view four of these guys as starters and think Jenkins could be a superstar in time. With Florida having questions at DE, it would not be surprising to see the Gators mix in some 3-4 schemes in passing situations (different from the "joker" package) with linebackers providing pass rush from different angles as well as some zone blitz packages. Either way, this unit and its top four players will be very busy.

Next, we'll evaluate the situation for the Gators at cornerback.

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