SEC Country is taking an early position-by-position look at Florida’s roster for 2018. So far, we’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line and defensive backs. Now on to the linebackers.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While Florida’s quarterback competition will attract the most interest this spring, the evaluation that will take place on the defense is plenty interesting in its own right.
New Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has said his unit will play a mix of four down linemen and three down linemen and will play to the strengths of his personnel. But ultimately, the defense is switching to a new philosophy with 3-4 base principles, and there will be adjustments that come with that.
For instance, Grantham has confirmed that senior standout CeCe Jefferson will work both at defensive end, his natural position, as well as outside linebacker in those 3-4 alignments.
But it’s likely Jefferson isn’t the only player on the move. Until spring practice starts, it’s all guesswork as to how the coaching staff will put the pieces of the defensive puzzle together.
Christian Robinson, who will coach the Gators’ inside linebackers, said as much when he met with reporters a couple weeks ago.
“Right now we’re just putting pieces together to see what we want to do this spring. As we go, that will adapt, people will be moving all over the place, I imagine,” he said.
But there are some opinions that can be drawn heading into this next month nonetheless.
For what it’s worth, here was Robinson’s overall opinion of the linebacker group he’s inheriting, albeit an opinion made before having a chance to work closely with the guys.
“I’m excited. I think we have a great group of guys and some guys that have played,” he said. “I’ve been to some places as a graduate coach where you didn’t have a large number. I’ve got a large room compared to places I’ve been. So it’s exciting to be able to coach them and everybody gets coached. This spring we’re going to be evaluating everybody, and I think that’s what is exciting to our room is that everybody’s going to get the reps, everyone’s going to get the chance to show what they can do and we’ll try and put the best 11 out there on Saturday.”
Let’s take a closer look at that linebacker room …
David Reese (junior): Reese is as easy to project as anybody on this Florida defense. He’s an ideal inside linebacker in a 3-4 and played well as the middle linebacker in the Gators’ 4-3 the last two years. He should be a mainstay again for Florida as a two-year starter coming off a season in which he led the team with 102 tackles while no other player on the roster had more than 58. He also tallied 10 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
The rest of the group is less easy to forecast.
Vosean Joseph (junior): Joseph is a hard-hitting tackler, but he had his inconsistencies last year while finishing with 55 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and an interception.
Kylan Johnson (redshirt junior): Johnson was undermined by injuries last season, and it’s tough to say where he projects in the Gators’ new defense. He is one of the few experienced players at the position, though.
Ventrell Miller and James Houston (redshirt freshmen): Miller and Houston were suspended last season as part of the Gators’ credit card fraud saga. Reinstated back in January, both will get a second chance at a better first impression.
Rayshad Jackson (redshirt junior): Jackson played mostly on special teams last season while totaling 14 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Lacedrick Brunson (redshirt freshman): Brunson was a rare 2-star signee for Florida in the Class of 2016, but former defensive coordinator Randy Shannon dismissed that star rating and was high on Brunson’s potential. Whether he ends up inside or outside remains to be seen, but he made his reputation in high school as a high-volume tackler.
CeCe Jefferson (senior): Jefferson is a pass rusher, whether that comes out of a defensive end stance or as a charging outside linebacker. Showing his position versatility will only improve his draft stock, and Jefferson clearly liked the vision sold to him by the new coaching staff as he decided to pass on the NFL draft and return for his final season. He should be a star for the Gators, however he’s utilized.
Jeremiah Moon (redshirt sophomore): Moon has often been referred to as a freak athlete, and the previous coaching staff had tried experimenting with him as a versatile linebacker who could drop into coverage. The new coaching staff also sees him as a versatile piece with coach Dan Mullen hinting that Moon could get some work at defensive end. He still has plenty to prove after totaling just 23 tackles last season, but he has plenty of untapped upside as well.
Again, the rest of this list is less clear.
Jachai Polite (junior): This is a guess that Polite will be another of the defensive ends Florida might look to experiment with at outside linebacker. He’ll, of course, also play on the defensive line in four-down-linemen sets. Listed at 6-foot-2, 260 pounds last season, Polite had a breakout fall while showing both his pass-rushing potential (5.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries) and his overall athleticism, memorably chasing down Tennessee running back John Kelly from behind after starting the play in the offense’s backfield.
Nick Smith (redshirt freshman): Smith was 3-star prospect in the Class of 2017, but he had the profile and look of a player who could outperform his recruiting ranking and be a real factor for the Gators. Unfortunately, a season-ending knee injury in the preseason wiped up his freshman season. He’s a young player to keep an eye on in 2018.
Amari Burney (freshman): Burney, the Gators’ highest-rated Class of 2018 defensive signee, was an early enrollee and will go through spring practice. It’s very possible he ends up at safety, but he is also expected to get a look at outside linebacker. His general upside is intriguing wherever he ends up on the depth chart.
Andrew Chatfield and David Reese (freshmen): These 4-star prospects won’t arrive until the summer, but they were each key signees for Florida in terms of filling a major need at outside linebacker. Mullen raved about the feedback he received on Chatfield, how he was described as the “hardest playing guy on the field.” It would not be a surprise to see these guys climb the depth chart quickly. And yes, the potential for having two David Reeses playing linebacker on the same defense is interesting in its own right.
Linebacker was Florida’s thinnest position last year, in part because of the suspensions of Miller and Houston. As Robinson noted, the Gators look to have better numbers there, especially when considering some of the defensive end types who will get looks at outside linebacker and versatile players such as Burney who could end up as a defensive back or outside linebacker.
But this was also the position of most concern for fans when it was announced the Gators had hired Grantham and would be bringing in his 3-4 defense.
He assuaged some of those concerns by clarifying that his defense would be flexible and adjust to the personnel. But it remains to be seen how that will materialize.
“That whole thing about 3-4, 4-3, to me it’s really about we’re a 3-4 structure, but we play four down and three down and we’re going to find ways to get our best players on the field. And we’re going to change every year relevant to the playmakers. Because defense is about winning your 1-on-1 matchups,” Grantham said.
“… I think that we have pieces in place. We’ve just got to put them together. And that’s really what spring is for to me. We’ll mix and move guys around and try to figure out what combination of players give us the best chance to be successful.”