The upside: The potentially crippling injuries to starters Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone in the second half of last season actually ended up having a silver lining.
It created an opportunity for Florida’s young linebackers to step up and perform — and they did, at a high level. Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and true freshmen David Reese and Vosean Joseph played so well that there was no noticeable drop-off with the starters standing on the sideline.
And Johnson, Reese and Joseph were a factor in some of the biggest games of the season V the win at LSU that clinched the East, Florida State, Alabama and the bowl win over Iowa. That experience prepared them to take over as the full-time starters, and that’s what they are now. It is a fast, athletic and hard-hitting trio, one that has shown it can carry out assignments and make plays.
The linebacker with perhaps the biggest upside could be Joseph, who really came on down the stretch last season. He produced the biggest hit of the season when he nailed LSU quarterback Danny Etling with a thunderous shot on the sideline that prevented a touchdown.
Joseph, Reese and Johnson share one important trait. They can all play all three linebacker positions, which is huge for a LB group that is mostly young and inexperienced.
The downside: The lack of depth at linebacker is probably the most glaring weakness — and biggest concern — on this Florida team. Here is what the Gators will have lining up behind the three starters: a sophomore with two career tackles (Rayshad Jackson), a walk-on (Cristian Garcia), a redshirt freshman with zero experience (Jeremiah Moon) and four true freshmen (James Houston IV, Ventrell Miller, Nick Smith and Lacedrick Brunson).
If injuries hit like they did last season, the Gators could be staring at a defensive disaster, especially if it happens early in the season when it’s doubtful the true freshmen will be ready to step in and perform at a level comparable to Reese and Joseph in the second half of last season. It helps that the Gators usually play a lot of nickel defense, which features only two linebackers. But against physical running teams in the SEC, UF will have to line up three — and the pressure is going to be on for those three to stay healthy long enough for the young LBs to make progress in their development.
Young guy to watch: A four-star recruit out of Alabama, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Moon was primed to make an immediate impact at outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2016. But after playing in the first two games and recording three tackles, Moon injured his thumb in practice and underwent season-ending surgery. Following a redshirt season, Moon is back healthy — and big things are expected from him by the coaches. He is somewhat of an athletic freak who has been compared to former UF star Jevon Kearse. With so little proven depth at the three linebacker positions, Moon will see significant playing time.
UF’s Probable Depth Chart
41-James Houston IV
Ranking the SEC linebackers
7. Mississippi State
8. South Carolina
9. Texas A&M
14. Ole Miss
Don’t be surprised if. … New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon spends a lot of time working with linebackers coach Tim Skipper and the linebackers. Shannon has a great track record for developing linebackers, and there are a lot of young LBs on the roster who will be in need of developing if the Gators hope to overcome their lack of depth at the three positions.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.