One of the biggest concerns heading into the spring apparently has already been alleviated only six practices in.
Depth at linebacker.
The Florida Gators now seem to have it. At least that’s linebackers coach Christian Robinson’s take on it, and he should know.
When asked what the strength of the linebacker group is, he didn’t hesitate.
“It’s depth,” he said after Monday’s practice. “We’ve got a lot of guys. … I’ve never had this big of a group in anywhere I’ve dealt with. I have three racks of guys that can actually play right now and you know we’ve got some other guys coming in this summer.
“We’re going to have depth and be able to play a lot of guys. In order to play in the national championship you’ve got to be able to make it there and you can’t get worn down late in the season.”
Florida’s linebackers did wear down during that long and disappointing 4-7 season last fall.
At linebacker, the Gators had David Reese, Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, Jeremiah Moon and former walk-on Cristian Garcia.
And that’s about it.
That adds up to only four scholarship linebackers and one former walk-on.
There’s a whole different look at linebacker this spring. The Gators are deep.
Here’s how they got there:
- The emergence of junior Rashad Jackson, who was mainly a special teams player the past two seasons. He’s shown this spring he’s ready to contribute on defense. He ran with the No. 1 defense some during Saturday’s open practice.
“Rayshad has done a great job,” Robinson said. “He’s been doing everything I ask him to do. What I like about him is he’s coachable. I’m looking for guys that are coachable and do what you tell them to do even when it’s tough.”
- The return of freshmen linebackers James Houston V and Ventrell Miller, two of the players who were suspended last season for credit card fraud.
Both have been making big plays — and big hits — this spring.
“We need those young guys to come in the game because last year I want to say we didn’t really have a lot of depth,” Joseph said. “With them coming back, there’s a lot of depth on the linebacker group. They’re back, they’re fresh, so we’re going to use them a lot.
“Ventrell and James, them boys are very physical. They’re big linebackers. They’re going to come down and do whatever they need to be told to do and they’re going to do it.”
Both said sitting out last season was difficult and now they’re motivated by this second chance.
“It was tough, but I’m ready to start a new opportunity,” Houston said. “I’m ready to get back into the groove of things.”
Said Miller: “I just thank God for just giving me the opportunity to be back and the talent just to be back. I’m back in the groove. I’m ready to play football.”
- The healthy return of freshmen linebacker Nick Smith, who sat out last season after injuring his knee during summer workouts. Like Miller and Houston, Smith has shown an ability to run and strike.
- The versatility of true freshman Amari Burney. He began the spring workouts at safety, but because of his size and athletic ability, he’s also been getting some reps at linebacker, where he could see playing time in the fall.
“He’s done a great job and he’s continued to grow and like any player he’s got to continue to study,” Robinson said. “I love what he’s been doing.”
- The hybrids — Cece Jefferson and Jachai Polite. The starting ends last season, the two have basically assumed the role of outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. As they’ve shown in the past, both are playmakers.
“They can rush the passer,” Robinson said. “Any time you’ve got guys that can get off the edge with some juice and make tackles, it makes jobs easier for the inside guys because those lanes open up where they can go make plays. You’ve got two good ones right there.
“These guys are going to be playmakers on our defense.”
What had been a question mark heading into the spring now appears to be a team strength.
The Gators now have 12 scholarship linebackers competing for playing time. Now, it’s a matter of coaching them all up and determining a playing rotation, something UF lacked last season.
“What we’re instilling here in this program is relentless effort,” Robinson said. “Everything is relentless effort. Every position’s got to learn how to strain, run to the football.
“Guys that can go the longest are going to win on defense, so we’re trying to get them to learn that every day.”
It helps having depth.