LSU linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley will be reunited with former teammate Jermaine Cunningham when the Tigers and Gators meet at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The trio played together at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., but Cunningham headed to the Sunshine State, while Riley and Sheppard took their act to the bayou.
“We tried to get Jermaine to come down here, but when we came out of high school he was only about 215 pounds,” Sheppard said. “He was a bit undersized and he decided to go to Florida, which we told him not to do.”
Despite playing for rival schools, Riley said the three of them talk on a consistent basis. Cunningham has developed into one of the Gators’ top pass rushers with three sacks to his credit, while Riley and Sheppard are playing prominent roles as LSU’s outside linebackers.
“We play on two different sides of the ball so there won’t be too much trash talking going on,” Riley said. “There’s some back and forth about who’s going to beat who. [Cunningham] has won one while he’s been there and I’ve won one while I’ve been here.”
Surprisingly, none of the three were lured to in-state juggernaut Georgia.
“The people in Georgia were very surprised because, to them, the home state school should get everyone,” Sheppard said. “But I just didn’t like it when I went [to Georgia], I didn’t like the atmosphere. I liked it here a lot better.”
As is so often the case in SEC matchups, hometown bragging rights will be on the line Saturday in Gainesville.
Saturday also marks the two young linebackers’ first action since the defense’s underwhelming performance against Mississippi State. Sheppard and Riley each stressed the importance of being disciplined against the multi-faceted offense of Florida.
“You can’t play a game against Florida trying to just focus on Tebow and take out one guy,” Sheppard said. “They have so many guys that can break big plays at any time. Brandon James, Percy Harvin, Deonte Thompson, Chris Rainey, Jon Demps … all those guys can go the distance, and if you lock in on just one of them it takes away from your defensive game plan.”
Many people have expressed concerns about the linebackers finding themselves one-on-one with tailbacks, and both young linebackers are aware of the speed the Gators bring out of the backfield.
“You’ve got to read the linemen, they tell you where the ball is going,” Riley said. “If you get into reading the backfield and all that misdirection it can get confusing. The linemen tell you what to do.”
Riley also said the Tigers have adjusted their defense based on the miscues of Sept. 27’s game against Mississippi State.
“We played a lot of man coverage, so this week we switched to a more base coverage due to their speed,” Riley said. “We’ll be playing a lot of zone and less man to prevent those isolations.”