Reese leading way for UF linebackers

Florida linebacker David Reese tackles LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. in their Oct. 6 game in The Swamp. The key for 2019 is keeping Reese on the field. [Lauren Bacho/Staff photographer]

College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.

If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.

For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.

The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:

Linebacker

Who’s gone: In a bit of surprise, junior Vosean Joseph declared for the NFL draft. Although he struggled with consistency at times (and had problems trying to cover tight ends), Joseph was UF’s leading playmaker on defense this past season. He led the team in tackles with 87, including four sacks and nine tackles for loss.

His ability to make plays — and deliver punishing blows — always seemed to fire up his teammates.

Rising redshirt sophomore Nick Smith announced via social media Tuesday he has to give up football because of a neck injury. He was redshirted in 2017 and saw action in only one game in 2018.

“By the grace of God, I’m still walking, talking and breathing on my on will and can promise that I WILL NOT LET FOOTBALL DEFINE WHO I AM AS A PERSON,” Smith wrote.

Who’s back: Everybody else — David Reese, Kylan Johnson, James Houston IV, Rayshad Jackson, Ventrell Miller, Jeremiah Moon, Lacedrick Burton, Andrew Chatfield and the other David Reese.

Losing Joseph stings a little bit, but what would have hurt worse is if Reese had decided to forego his senior year to enter the draft. It’s huge that he’s come back for his senior season.

Not only is Reese UF’s most experienced linebacker (25 career starts) and best run stopper, he’s the quarterback of the defense and a team leader. He knows the defense inside and out and does an excellent job making sure everyone is lined up correctly and what their assignments are.

His value to the defense was evident in the loss to Kentucky. With Reese out with an ankle sprain, the UF defensive front got out of its gaps, missed assignments and got gutted in the ground game.

All those problems went away when he returned two weeks later against Tennessee.

Reese will be the leader of a linebacking corps that has a lot of experience (Moon, Johnson, Jackson), but is still young in many ways (Houston, Miller, Smith and Chatfield).

Who’s new: Chatfield, who redshirted as a true freshman this past season, is a highly rated prospect expected to compete for significant playing time at the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position that Jachai Polite and Cece Jefferson excelled in in 2018.

The other David Reese, the true freshman who redshirted in the fall, is an excellent athlete and is capable of playing safety and linebacker. He will be mentored by the older Reese at linebacker.

Two incoming freshmen — early enrollee Mohamoud Diabate and summer enrollee Lloyd Summerall — likely will get a look at the defensive end/outside linebacker position.

Two other true freshmen — Ty’Ron Hopper and Jesiah-Gabriel Pierre, an early enrollee — are expected to compete at Joseph’s former position inside.

What’s next: The Gators have solid numbers and experience at linebacker. The next move is to further develop some of the younger players this spring who showed some flashes last season. In particular, Houston and Miller. Houston figures to take over as the starter in Joseph’s old spot. He played in all 13 games last season and appears to have a big upside. Miller showed on special teams that he’s a big-time hitter.

Finding playmakers at the Polite/Jefferson hybrid position also will be a priority this spring and in preseason camp.

Possible scenario: The key is keeping Reese on the field. That’s how important he is to this group. If he stays healthy and some of the younger guys continue to develop, the Gators have a chance to be just as strong or stronger here than last season, when everyone was adjusting to a new defense.

" Robbie Andreu : @@RobbieAndreu ."