Linebacker play crucial to UF's success this year


Florida's Neiron Ball (11) and Darrin Kitchens (49) lock up during a drill at spring football practice in March.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 10:14 p.m.

You've been hearing it all summer, the keys to this Florida football season. Your neighbor says Jeff Driskel has to step up (once he gets back from his appendectomy) while the guy at the convenience store says it's the receivers. Meanwhile, there is the friend of yours at the gym who insists Florida will only be as good as its safeties.

All of these are great points, and with a team that has so many question marks it seems almost unrealistic the Gators will enter this season ranked 10th in the coaches' poll.

Some of the optimism is based on recruiting, some of it based on coach Will Muschamp, who has shown he knows what he's doing. Some of it is based on 11 wins a year ago. No matter how the Gators got to 11 wins, there were victories over four teams the coaches currently have ranked among the top-13 teams in America.

And the coaches don't worry about the schedules each team faces. That would require too much work. Most of them let their sports information directors or football operations guys do the voting or at least compile a consensus of the preseason magazines and give it a look over.

My point (and you knew I'd get to it eventually) is that I believe Florida's season against a brutal schedule will be decided in an area where the Gators will start the season without their top-four players from last year — linebacker.

Jelani Jenkins left early, Jon Bostic and Lerentee McCray used up their eligibility and Antonio Morrison will sit for two games because of poor judgment.

That means Florida will start the season with a giant question mark hovering over the linebacking corps like a dark cloud.

Look, the Gators have already shown they can win without stellar wide receiver play (as in, last season). They won 11 games with Josh Evans playing solid at safety, but hardly turning in All-SEC type performances.

But without strong play at linebacker, it's going to be difficult for this defense to be anything close to what it was last season. You watch games from last year and see play after play made by those linebackers who are gone and one of the biggest being made by the guy who is suspended.

And you're counting on freshmen and a guy who missed last year with a torn ACL and an outside guy moving inside, and you just wonder how they're going to get it done.

And yet, you don't sense any real concerns when Muschamp talks.

“We think we've recruited well,” he said last week.

So well, that he's talking about playing more 3-4 defense this year with four linebackers on the field at the same time.

This, not surprisingly, gets the linebackers excited.

“I can't put it into words,” said Darrin Kitchens. “It's a great opportunity.”

Muschamp loves his freshman linebackers and thinks they can contribute right away. He and coordinator D.J. Durkin have worked early in camp to get the 3-4 plan installed.

“The thing you've got to have in an odd front,” Muschamp said, “you better have two really good outside linebackers, and I think we do in Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler.”

It's the potential of those two players on the outside that has Muschamp tinkering with the defense. But Florida has to be strong in the middle to prevent teams from ramming it down its throat.

That's where players such as Michael Taylor, Neiron Ball and Kitchens and maybe even freshmen Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone need to step up. Morrison will eventually be back, and when he is back Florida will have 13 linebackers on the roster (including walk-ons).

So it's not a numbers issue as much as it is an experience issue.

The three starters from last year will be missed. How much they are missed will be the biggest factor in Florida's success this season.

I agree with Muschamp that UF has recruited well at the position. We're about to find out how well.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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