GAINESVILLE, Fla. — To Florida’s Kylan Johnson, the position labels given to him are just formalities.
He doesn’t view himself as just a linebacker as he heads into his redshirt sophomore year with the Gators. He didn’t view himself as just a safety and quarterback in high school.
Johnson, in his own words, is an athlete. Why limit himself to a specific position?
“I’m down for whatever the team needs me to do. I’m able to play anything,” Johnson said. “If they need me to play it, I’ll play it.”
His ability to bounce around the defense will be put to use in 2017. Johnson is expected to be the Gators’ starting strongside linebacker and also has the potential to slide over and play nickelback.
That was made apparent Thursday when the Gators began fall practice. During the team’s four-play “fastball” drill — essentially a scripted two-minute red-zone drill at the start of practice — Johnson started at linebacker alongside David Reese and Vosean Joseph. With the offense running no-huddle with three wide receivers, Johnson shifted from linebacker to nickelback on the final play. He blanketed slot receiver Brandon Powell in coverage just outside of the end zone.
“That’s just a little spice that [defensive coordinator Randy] Shannon adds to the defense,” Johnson said. “Having three big dudes that are like linebackers but I can cover good, too. It just makes it easier instead of just bringing in a regular nickel and having to sub in and out. It really makes sense to just keep me in.”
At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Johnson is bigger than the typical nickelback, a player generally responsible for covering the opponent’s slot wide receivers and tight ends.
Add in his ability to tackle and pick up run schemes along with his speed and coverage skills from his days as a safety, and Johnson provides an interesting mismatch for opposing offenses.
“You don’t want a little DB on a big tight end and they run the ball. You don’t want that,” Johnson said. “So I’m a guy that’s able to cover and fit a gap, so I feel like it’s easier on the defense and the coach.”
This is especially true for a Florida defense looking to reload in the secondary. The Gators lost three of their top defensive backs from 2016 — Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye — to the NFL draft. A fourth, redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris, is out for the season with a torn right Achilles tendon.
Now, the Gators are forced to adapt to the personnel they have at hand. That likely means having Johnson use his versatility to his advantage.
He came to Florida in 2015 as a 3-star safety prospect from Dallas, but a season-ending ankle injury forced him to sit out the first year with a medical redshirt. Johnson converted to linebacker ahead of the 2016 season because of a lack of depth at the position.
In 2016, Johnson showed glimpses of his potential. He recorded 39 tackles (5 for loss) along with a sack, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup and a fumble recovery in 13 games. After starting linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone suffered injuries midseason, Johnson started the final five games at weakside linebacker. In those five games, Johnson recorded 26 tackles (3 1/2 for loss), a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup. He had a career-high 8 tackles in the win against LSU.
Since the Gators played mostly with two-linebacker sets, Johnson’s responsibilities revolved around neutralizing the run game and helping with blitz packages more so than aiding in coverage. Now, his coverage skills are coming back into play in 2017, which could help Johnson impress NFL scouts as they look at a young Florida defense.
“[I’m showing them] that I can play multiple positions,” Johnson said, “which I believe they’ll like.”
For now, though, the focus is on making sure the Florida defense doesn’t experience a dropoff. Johnson and the other projected starting linebackers — Reese and Joseph — are sophomores, but Florida coach Jim McElwain said they already carry a veteran presence when they walk into practice.
“I liked what we got out of that linebacker crew, especially when we had [Johnson] at nickel [Thursday] working with David and Vosean in there,” McElwain said. “I really felt there was kind of a sense of calm that here’s some guys that have played a lot of ball.”
They have a lot more ball to play. Johnson knows that.
And now, they need to step up and be leaders, too.
“We know we’re the vets compared to the young dudes that just came in,” Joseph said, “but now we have to start acting like it more and set an example for them about how things are supposed to go.”