Gators defense still developing consistent leadership

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Florida expects to have team leader and starting linebacker David Reese back in the lineup Saturday at Tennessee.[Lauren Bacho/Gainesville Sun]

Florida redshirt freshman linebacker James Houston IV didn’t mince his words when asked who has stepped up as a leader for Florida in the absence of David Reese.

“No one has filled that role,” Houston said. “It was like a piece of us left.”

Florida’s defense won’t be at full strength all season — star sophomore cornerback Marco Wilson went down with an injury before Reese or defensive end Cece Jefferson could return — and the rush defense has left much to be desired throughout the first three games of the season.

But Florida’s first road contest also gives the Gators their initial opportunity to see how the front seven performs when junior linebacker David Reese returns Saturday to face Tennessee at 7 p.m. in Knoxville.

Reese, who has missed a month of team-related activities while he recovers from a high ankle sprain, is expected to make his 2018 debut, once again giving UF a boost with the return of a vital contributor.

In Florida’s 48-10 win over Colorado State last Saturday, it was Jefferson who returned to the field following an academic-related suspension. Although his efforts didn’t show up in the stat sheet, Jefferson made a critical block during Freddie Swain’s punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“Everybody’s trying to get key blocks,” Swain said of the block on his touchdown. “Special teams, I would say from my perspective is more important than any offensive play or defensive play.”

After a rough start to Jefferson’s senior season, sound contributions on special teams will go a long way in earning him playing time, in addition to displaying ideal leadership to the team.

The need for improved leadership is something coach Dan Mullen has harped on frequently during discussions pertaining to necessary improvements inside the program.

“I’d love the leadership to continue to grow where it’s not just coming from us, where the guys get more comfortable in the program. I don’t think there’s a lack of leadership; I think there’s uncertainty. I think there’s guys on the team that could become really good leaders,” Mullen said following UF’s win over the Rams. “They’re still learning how the program’s expected to be. Guys are learning when to step up, when to lead, how to lead. They’re still taking care of themselves so the coaches are doing it.”

One of several players who has made a leap in the leadership department is sophomore cornerback CJ Henderson. A quiet and reserved presence off of the field, Henderson doesn’t seem as if he would take the onus himself to assume a vocal role in the locker room. Instead, Henderson has displayed leadership qualities through his actions, according to defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, with a little coaxing and encouragement mixed in. But at the end of the day, the proof lies in Henderson’s actions.

“When you say leadership, he didn’t jump up and down and (yell). He said, ‘This is what I do to get better. You guys should try it because it’s been working for me.’ Him and Marco did that every day, every practice, Summer, Fall, it didn’t matter, and now you see most of the guys out there doing the same work. So I think that’s part of the leadership role without definitely being a vocal guy.”

That mindset — display leadership rather than state it — is an approach the UF defense as a whole will look to embody when Florida hits the road to face the Volunteers.

“You don’t a lot of times have to say anything to be a leader because what you’re doing is showing people with your actions,” Warren said. “Those actions sometimes speak a lot louder than words.”

38 COMMENTS

  1. It seems that until we get a quality meaningful win – all conversations become blah blah blah. Saturday is an opportunity to start meaningful conversation and real hope.

    And by the way – based on UCLA and Nebraska results so far – you have to give all the new coaches a little slack in the rehab process.

      • Beating Tennessee (at Tennessee) will be way the heck better than losing to Tennessee. WAY BETTER. If the Gators win, they come out 3-1 and notch their first win against a Power 5 team. The chances of getting to a bowl game and a winning season increase significantly. The Gators get off to a significantly better start to the season and for the new coaching staff than two arch rivals (Tennessee & FSU). The team can probably say it improved a little bit more this week. Fans and players get a little more confidence in the coaching staff. And all of that translates to improved results on the recruiting trail — including some possible flips from FSU and/or Tennessee.

        If all you judge a season on is if the team is contending for a national championship at the end of the year — then yeah, sure, beating Tennessee isn’t a big deal. But if consistent improvement, regaining of program prestige, and a good future outlook are important to you, then beating Tennessee is pretty important.

  2. Chris Doering ripped into this Florida team big time again today. Basically said that the team has no heart for the game and that Franks is not a leader and cannot process the game mentally. Well, we will likely find out if he is correct this Saturday. Franks has to produce or it will likely become Trask time soon. And the rest of the team really has to come out with “relentless effort” instead of relentless talk. But, in either case, I doubt Mr. Doering is going to be “Mr. Two Bits” anytime soon.

    • Doering was not a highly recruited guy, had to fight for his playing time and was on teams that had tremendous heart. He had great heart and knows what teams who have good heart and “relentless effort” look like. He may not be right but I’d take his opinion over the current state of the team over many other.

      Tebow basically said more or less the same thing on SEC Nation last week. This overhaul is going to take a lot more time than any of us Gators have patience for..

      • Agree, Dallas……Doering doesn’t have any particular axe to grind and no vested interest in expressing an opinion that contains anything but the truth as he sees it. He’s not the first to question this team’s character or heart, he won’t be the last, and there may (or may not) be something to it. I think it’s a factor to be sure, just not sure yet how much weight to assign it.

          • If you cannot see sense in that comment, then you are as you claim, “lacking in education”. Truth is factual, sir. There is no truth as “you see it”. That would be one’s “opinion”. And it was Doering’s opinion, but his opinion could become truth late Saturday night. But keep clipping those toenails and acting dumb on here.

          • I’m not sure what axe you grinding right now, being of little concern, but it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that I’m not really interested in splitting hairs with you on this or any other matter. Have a nice day.

    • We’re living in a day and age where people either don’t say anything while speaking a lot (coachspeak) or where agendas dictate what is said (politics and social media). And in both cases, you can’t take any of that seriously.

      On the other hand, occasionally you have commentary like Doering’s or Tebow’s that doesn’t have a vested interest and is just honest, without being mean-spirited. This you can take seriously. And I believe that what both guys are talking about is the crux of what is wrong with this team and program. Lack of character. Losing culture. Low expectations. But Coach Mullen is fixing that, one step at a time. It’s a problem now. It won’t be in a couple of years.

  3. Doering’s more impressed by Tennessee’s development under Pruitt so far than he is Florida’s behind the coaching of Mullen. He and Tebow both cite lack of leadership, a point more valid because of the two former Gators’ agreement. I’ve got more confidence in Mullen, however, and believe Florida has an important edge in talent. If our defensive front can contain UT’s running game, and that’s open to question, the Gators will win by about 27-21.

    • If we could exactly know the truth, I suspect that we would find that these two teams are pretty much in the same spot, if not for different reasons. Looking beyond our own bias for a moment, both teams have been elite, have suffered for several years through coaching changes and program liabilities, have been essentially humiliated, and now have dynamic young coaches (to me at least) who will most likely restore them to a high level in ___ years. I think we have the edge in the instant moment, and sincerely hope that we do for the next few years too. Florida 21-Tennesse 17.

      I feel it, just not sure where.

        • Yeah…I actually have a lot of respect for the guy, knowing how dysfunctional that program was before the re-advent of Phil Fulmer. As much as it pains me to say it, Rog, I hope Tennessee does get better, obviously us just that much better, and so too the rest of the East so we can get back to the not-so-long-ago days of kick-ass, relevant, exciting football on this side of the SEC. Have fun on Saturday! 🐊

    • Clyde. There is nothing in this season so far that shows that Doering should be more impressed with what Pruitt is doing over what Mullen is doing. For example, Tennessee just beat UTEP 24 to 0. UTEP lost 30 to 10 to Northern Arizona, which lost 40 to 8 to Missouri State. UTEP also lost 52 to 24 to UNLV, and UNLV lost to a weak USC team, 43 to 21. Tennessee also lost to a 2 and 0 W. Virginia team (could have been a lot worse) 40 to 14, while Florida lost to a 3 and 0 Kentucky team 26 to 16 (should have been 20 to 19). Florida destroyed Charleston Southern 53 to 6 (could have been a lot worse) and Colorado State 48 to 10 (mostly shutting down a good CSU offense). I think Doering is simply and mostly reacting to the stunning loss to Kentucky at home, like most of us have. I personally watched Tennessee play vs. WVU and UTEP and I am not impressed with them at all. Florida was very unimpressive vs. Kentucky, but Tennessee looked horrible and played worse vs. WVU. Going into this game, I see Florida having the edge in talent and coaching. Tennessee has a better QB and good WRs and RBs, and that will keep the game close. But I see Florida winning this game 31 to 21 because they have made more progress under Mullen than Tennessee has under Pruitt.

  4. Fans need to listen when former players and coaches like Doering, Tebow and Spurrier speak about the battle Mullen faces with the current players. Florida suffers greatly from a lack of leadership from the upperclassmen. You constantly hear our players make statements that exemplify the lack of accountability within the team. While Mac did recruit a few gems like David Reese, most of his highly recruited players are part of the me generation and only care about making it to the NFL. Fans need to have patience while Mullen recruits players who will develop into the leaders of the 2020 and beyond teams. All we should expect to see this year is slow improvement in effort and buy in from the team. Preseason euphoria from the few pundits who tried to make it sound like Florida could be this seasons surprise team gave fans false hope. The current coaches didn’t give out false hope.

  5. Thank-you Chris Doering and Tebow for the straight talk, and to Tampa for re-posting. All the rah-rah talk by the coach, certain players, and many on this board gets really old. When there’s a reason to cheer, I’ll be the first to applaud, but until then, it’s about accountability, including the 6 million dollar man. As far as leadership and heart, I still say it all feeds down from the top, with Mullen and the QB. They should get much of the credit when they do well, but should also get much of the blame when they don’t. Lastly, still hoping Mullen gets off his high horse and gives Trask a shot for a quarter. Just got a feeling about this kid.

      • Just seems as if Mullen is a bit stubborn, and is going to stick with his choice for QB no matter what. Hope I’m wrong, but he doesn’t appear to make many game time or week to week adjustments. Have to also wonder why is Scarlett still starting?
        Go Gators!

        • Yeah, you can sure say that, but he’s got a pretty stubborn team right now! Dunno, to tell you the truth — I’m thinking, as mveal put it several weeks ago now, this team is still pretty fragile and he (Mullen) may see limited options. I think Trask will get his chance tho…..wouldn’t it be something if he and Pierce turned out to be the catalysts forward?

        • We are only three games in. Based solely on Mullen’s track record with QBs makes me think he sees something in both Trask and Franks that has him “stubbornly” playing Franks. I’m the least capable person in the world in eveluating QB talent but Mullen has shown a consistent knack for it through the years. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt until I stop seeing progress and so far, I think any objective fan can see there has been. Has our QB play been as efficient as possible? That’s a hard question to answer without seeing Trask play and no fan no matter how astute in QB evaluating can say with certainty one way or the other. Have faith Brother and give Mullen time. Go Gators!

  6. How can you be leader when you don’t do the right thing yourself? Jefferson was a vocal leader then didn’t do what he preached. Left the players high and dry. Now, he has to play into playing shape where it could be 2 to 3 games. Reese is not 100% with a high ankle sprain and not in playing shape either. One twist of that ankle or gets stepped on by a lineman, he will be sitting again. That is a tough injury to heal. I just hope that when they are in they can make some great plays for us. However, this is just one side of the ball…I really wish that Franks can do what Grier did in the second half when he played. The light came on in that second half and our Offense was clicking…Grier was on fire. Poof, then gone! Franks just needs to stop wanting the big play and take what the defense gives to him. Keep the chains moving!!!

    • Gary. Jefferson was suspended from games. I believe he was practicing with the team. Jefferson is likely in 100 percent playing shape and it appeared he was last week. And high ankle sprains take 6 to 8 weeks to heal. The Tennessee game will be approximately six weeks since Reese was injured in practice (two weeks before the start of the season in fall practice). And Mullen has stated that he would not put players on the field if they are not 100 percent ready to play. It seems that Reese is that. But you are correct in that it is very easy to reinjure a high sprain injury. And I would imagine that Reese being involved in stacks of players pushing and shoving in a game could be a major concern for him being able to stay on the field. But Florida needs his leadership on defense now. Not sure they can afford to wait two more weeks for him to return to the field. And I would imagine that he has been running, cutting, and tackling in practice. At least I hope so.

  7. Alum84. I think Mullen knew this team was not going to win championships this year. As a result, he sees a lot more physical talent in Franks than he does in Trask, and sees Franks fitting in and running his offense better than a far less mobile Trask could. Also, he likely sees the future not being Franks or Trask, but Jones or one of the QB recruits coming in next year. He is going to stick with Franks until Franks proves he cannot improve from week to week and lead this team. I think a bad performance in leadership and execution in the Tennessee game could spell a change at QB. But I would not be surprised to see that change be to Jones, not Trask, and especially if Florida loses to Tennessee. Mullen would have nothing to lose by playing Jones at that point and everything to gain by giving Jones a lot of experience at QB for the rest of the season. Trask is NOT the future. Jones may be. If Florida starts out 0 and 2 in the SEC, it is time for that future.

  8. TampaGator, I am not saying not to play Reese because we do need his leadership NOW. What Mullen goes by is the trainers final decision. I know he will be taped up good and tight. He is practicing but not game ready to take 50 to 60 plays because practice and playing are way to different animals. By the way, in the Kentucky game the camera showed him on the side line walking with a limp. That was the Kentucky game. I had those injuries and after 15 plays in a game the ankle just throbs like ****! You just play through it. However, you are not playing 100%. Given that, I hope he can stay in and give us great minutes!!!

  9. Gary. Former LB, Davis, tried to come back early with a high ankle sprain vs. Georgia and was lost for the rest of the year. Six weeks gives Reese a better chance. 8 weeks is much better. Could go either way on Saturday, and I would expect that he will play about 50 percent of the plays if he stays healthy in the game. Jefferson already was scheduled to play about 50 percent or less of the plays with both Polite and Moon playing better than him. Jefferson might see more time at strongside DE in the game.