GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Not only does Florida fully turn the keys to the defense over to a young set of linebackers this season, but the Gators have a new voice leading that group now as well.
After coaching the team’s running backs the last two years, Tim Skipper made the move to linebackers coach this offseason to accommodate the hiring of Ja’Juan Seider to fill his old post.
For Skipper, though, the change is nothing new.
He was a four-year starter at middle linebacker for Fresno State before launching his coaching career, during which he has worked as a defensive coordinator (at Western New Mexico and Sacramento State), coached first running backs and then linebackers back at Fresno State, and then linebackers again at Colorado State under Gators coach Jim McElwain.
“After the recruiting season ended, Coach Mac just came to me and talked to me about making the move to linebackers and I made the move. It’s been a smooth transition,” Skipper said Wednesday after practice. “The way Coach Mac kind of runs the organization we’re always around the players, so I already knew the guys. …
“It’s kind of natural. I don’t know, I’ve done it before so I didn’t see it as that big of a deal, I guess. A lot of people always ask me that. It just kind of was natural. Just go to work as a linebackers coach.”
The hard part, he said, is no longer coaching the running backs, including guys that he personally recruited to Florida. The other challenge is helping the Gators replace a pair of soon-to-be NFL linebackers in Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone.
But in that regard, the team has a head start.
With Davis and Anzalone missing the final stretch of last season due to injuries, Florida had to lean on young linebackers David Reese and Kylan Johnson in some of the biggest games of the year.
Reese, now a sophomore, will take over for Davis at middle linebacker, though he is out for the spring recovering from wrist surgery. Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, continues in Anzalone’s role, and sophomore Vosean Joseph also looks primed to make a larger impact after showing flashes of his potential last season.
“In about a month, some of those linebackers that were here are going to be millionaires. We have to replace those guys,” Skipper said. “David Reese has been injured and he’s kind of been the vocal guy. So without him there it’s forced some of the other guys to have to talk, and we’re a young group. I feel pretty good with the guys that played in games last year. Some of the guys that are younger, we’ve got to bring those guys along, and we’ll have some new recruits coming in here too and we’ll see how we look when we get to the end of August.”
Reese ended up starting four games last season, finishing with 49 tackles and 2 tackles for loss.
Johnson started the final five games and finished the season with 39 tackles and 5 tackles for loss.
And in addition to Joseph, there’s another young linebacker Skipper thinks could emerge as a factor this season as well.
Jeremiah Moon, a 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt freshman, sustained a season-ending thumb injury in the second game last fall and earned a medical redshirt, but the coaches have always been high on his potential. Rated as a 4-star linebacker from the 2016 class, he is making a strong impression so far this spring.
“He’s a long guy — you can’t miss him out there. He has some pass rush ability, he can put his hand in the dirt, he can also be a linebacker (and) stand up. He’s a versatile dude. You’ll see a lot of him next season,” Skipper said.
“If he keeps progressing well he should have a huge role. The kids, they handle themselves. I tell them all, all your reps, everything is up to you. If you’re executing and making plays you’re going to be out there. So I expect big things from him.”
Skipper also explained what he expects from the linebackers as a group.
“We want to get downhill, we want to be tough, we want to be physical, we want to re-route receivers,” he said. “Everything stems from being a tough, hard-nosed guy. Everything takes care of itself once you get that type of physical quality.”
While the Gators primary defensive scheme relied on two linebackers and a fifth defensive back last season, with a third linebacker subbed in at times, Skipper indicated that new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who coached the linebackers last season, simply wants the best collection of players on the field.
Florida’s linebacking corps may be young, but it’s got a depth of talent and it will be interesting to see how the Gators maximize their potential at that spot.
“We will use multiple personnel. Coach Shannon does a good job of saying the top 11 guys are going to play. If it has to be five linebackers out there, it’ll be five linebackers out there,” Skipper said. “Whatever it is, we’re able to do that. We have different personnel groups to accommodate those type of situations. You could see a lot of different mix of guys out there at different times.”