LBs a priority for Muschamp

Linebacker Jonathan Bostic, a junior, snagged three interceptions last season.

Published: Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 11:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 11:35 p.m.

When reciting a laundry list of issues facing his 2011 Gators, head coach Will Muschamp put the need for depth at linebacker near the top.

Florida returns two third-year players in Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, who each played in all 13 games last season.

“I feel very comfortable with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins,” Muschamp said. “After that we don't have any guys that have played in our league and understand what it's going to take to be successful. ... (I'm) very concerned about guys that don't understand the tempo and what it's like to line up on a Saturday night in this league.”

In addition to the search for depth, Florida is looking to determine who will be the third starter. Jenkins says it would be best for one player to claim that job.

“It's very important,” he said. “One guy has to make it known that they not going to let anybody else take that job. That's kind of what we had to do when we were trying to get our starting positions.”

Jenkins and Bostic may have only 17 career starts between the two of them, but last season the two proved themselves against top competition. Jenkins, in fact, was second on the team and led all SEC freshmen in tackles with 76. Bostic tied for third on the team with 57 tackles and also snared three interceptions.

The question is — Who else does UF have?

Here are the candidates ...

Lerentee McCray (6-foot-2, 250 pounds): The redshirt junior has the most experience, playing in 21 career games, but most of that action was on special teams or at defensive end. Because of that experience, he will play some at the hybrid Buck linebacker position, which shifts from defensive end in a 4-3 formation to outside linebacker in a 3-4. Muschamp says he feels McCray can play on both sides. Says Muschamp: “He's a guy that can give us some pass rush, plays extremely hard. He's tough. He sticks his face in there.” Says Bostic: “At (strongside) linebacker, he's coming off the ball. He's doing everything he needs to be doing over there.”

Dee Finley (6-2, 203): The redshirt sophomore is a converted safety who has played in 14 career games, but mostly on special teams and only a few as a backup linebacker. Says Muschamp: “When your position moves closer to the ball, the game happens a lot faster. So sometimes it takes a little longer for some guys to react to those situations. Dee has been a guy that's shown some flashes, was very productive for us early in spring, but consistently needs to continue to come on and do those things.” Says Jenkins: “He probably has to put on a little more weight so he can play against the run-blockers, but he's fast and he's athletic.”

Darrin Kitchens (6-2, 229): The sophomore looks the part but played very little as a freshman reserve linebacker. Jenkins says Kitchens still needs to learn the plays. Says Muschamp: “Darrin Kitchens is a young man that athletically has all the tools of what we're looking for, but has got to start now consistently doing it all the time.”

Michael Taylor (6-0, 227): After redshirting last season, Taylor turned some heads in spring practice. Says Muschamp: “Mike Taylor has done some nice things. Mike is a tough, physical kid. I think he's a guy that understands a little more of what we're asking for him.”

Gideon Ajagbe (6-3, 227): A partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder last fall led to a redshirt, but by all accounts Ajagbe was a raw talent to begin with. Jenkins says the physical talent is obvious, but Ajagbe needs seasoning and needs to continue to work on learning the plays.

Graham Stewart (6-1, 245): A true freshman who arrived only weeks ago, Stewart was the lone linebacker in the Gators' Class of 2011. Says Muschamp: “By all accounts from our players, they seemed to really like his athleticism and movement. We really liked his physicality on his high school tape.”

In Muschamp's defense, all of the linebacker are cross-trained at every position, and he says the middle and weakside spots are mirror-images.

The competition for that open spot has thus far been healthy and spirited. But Bostic says it's just as important for Florida's reserve linebackers to fight for playing time.

“Even behind us, somebody has to push us for our job,” he said. “We can't just be settled, like ‘We're the starters.' I want somebody behind me, pushing me everyday, making me better. We're not just challenging a third linebacker to step up, we're challenging all the linebackers to step up. If I go down or Jelani goes down, who else is going to go in?”

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