Forward focus: UF's linebackers
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 5:43 p.m.
The Florida Gators experienced a considerable bump in Will Muschamp's second season, going from 7-6 in 2011 to 11-2 in 2012 with a berth in a BCS bowl game.
2013 Possible depth chart
So, what happens in Year 3?
With so many players departing through a combination of graduation, transfers and leaving early for the NFL, UF is a team in transition as it moves forward.
Over the past few weeks, The Sun has broken down the Gators by position to give readers an idea what to expect in the fall.
Middle linebacker Jon Bostic and outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins have been two of the Gators' most productive defensive players over the past three seasons. The two combined to start 62 games and record 419 total tackles. Despite his size (243 pounds), Bostic was fast enough to cover tailbacks one-on-one in pass coverage. Jenkins, who made the decision to leave early for the NFL, also excelled in pass coverage and had a knack for being around the ball. Jenkins and Bostic developed a great chemistry over the past three seasons.
The Gators have only four returning linebackers who played last season — Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor. Those four have combined for only 10 career starts, so the overall lack of experience at the three linebacker positions is a concern. Depth also is a concern. Morrison was a major contributor as a true freshman last season and delivered one of the hits of the season when he separated FSU quarterback EJ Manuel from the ball (and temporarily knocked him out of the game) in the Gators' victory in Tallahassee. Morrison can play all three positions, but appears to be a leading candidate to start at one of the outside linebacker positions. Ball and Kitchens are expected to continue their close competition for the other starting outside role. Taylor also can play both in the middle and on the outside, something he's shown the past two seasons. Gideon Ajagbe returns, but he did not see the field last season.
The good news for the depth-shy Gators is that three of the four linebackers in the 2013 recruiting class are already on campus as early enrollees — five-star prospect Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin (although he is recovering from knee surgery and is expected to miss the spring). Anzalone and McMillian are expected to make a bid for significant playing time this spring if they can pick up the defense quickly. Both are physically mature players who run well and seem to be instinctive. Rolin fits that same mold and could be a factor when preseason camp opens in August if his knee is 100 percent. The other signee, Jarrad Davis, also will join the competition in August. Also new this spring will be outside linebacker Jeremi Powell, a member of the 2012 recruiting class who redshirted this past season. Although somewhat undersized at 202 pounds, Powell has excellent speed.
The Gators must replace a huge chunk of experience and production in Bostic and Jenkins. Those two also were leaders on the defense. Morrison, Ball, Kitchens and Taylor have shown lots of flashes, but they simply have not done it over a significant period of time yet. The Gators should receive a considerable boost from the true freshmen, especially the three early enrollees.
STRONGER OR WEAKER IN 2013?
With so few scholarship linebackers coming out of the 2012 season, signing four top prospects was big. Having three already on campus may be even bigger. But how much can the Gators expect their true freshmen to contribute right away in the SEC? UF has some potential big-time SEC linebackers in Morrison and Michael Taylor, but they are still relatively inexperienced compared to what the Gators had in Bostic and Jenkins last season. So, UF figures to be a little weaker at linebacker, although the Gators have a chance to get better over the course of the season with so many talented young players in the mix.