UF linebackers breakdown: Experience a strength, but depth unproven

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Florida linebackers Vosean Joseph (11) and David Reese (33) provide the defense with experience, versatility and speed. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

This is the fourth in a weekly series previewing the 2018 Florida football team.

A preview of the Florida linebacker unit entering head coach Dan Mullen’s first season:

The upside

This has gone from one of the least experienced groups on the team to one of the most experienced over the past two years.

David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson, who were thrown into the fire as true freshmen (Reese and Joseph) and redshirt freshman (Johnson) early in the 2016 season, are now seasoned veterans who have proven they can play at a high level in the SEC.

Reese has established himself as one of the elite run-stopping linebackers in the league. Despite having surgery on both wrists in the offseason a year ago, he returned for the start of last season and led the Gators in tackles (102) and tackles for loss (10). He is only the third UF linebacker since 2007 to top the century mark for stops in a season.

Joseph started all 11 games last season at outside linebacker and recorded 55 tackles, four tackles for loss, one interception, one pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.

Injuries limited Johnson to playing in six games last season, but he’s good to go now.

The Reese-Joseph-Johnson trifecta is a good starting point for this group. But what potentially puts it over the top is the addition of the fourth linebacker spot in the 3-4 defense.

It’s a hybrid position (combination of end and outside linebacker), and end CeCe Jefferson appears an ideal fit for it. He’ll have a chance to end his career by making all kinds plays in his senior season.

The hybrid position also seems like an ideal one for junior Jachai Polite’s skill set. Polite also will see time, and possibly start, at the traditional defensive end spot.

Jeremiah Moon is another proven player who will be battling for playing time at rush end/outside linebacker and outside linebacker. He’ll push for the starting role at outside linebacker.

The downside

The Gators have depth, but most of it is unproven.

Junior Rayshad Jackson has been mainly a special teams player.

The rest of the depth will come from true and redshirt freshmen who have yet to play a down at this level — Lacedrick Brunson, David Reese, Nick Smith, James Houston IV, Ventrell Miller, Umstead Sanders and Andrew Chatfield.

Young guy to watch

David Reese. Not the David Reese who is a junior and has been a starter the past two seasons. We’re talking about the true freshman David Reese who enrolled this summer and has made a great first impression on the coaches and his teammates with his relentless effort in the weight room and in conditioning drills. Clearly, he’s physically ready to play, and he provides instant depth on both the inside and outside. He’s big enough to play inside and fast enough and athletic enough to play on the edge and drop into coverage.

Don’t be surprised if …

Rayshad Jackson emerges as a real baller in his junior season. Sometimes, players just need a fresh start, and that’s what the new coaching staff has given Jackson, who has seen most of his previous playing time on special teams. He’s been on those special teams because of his ability to run and hit. This spring, getting tons of reps, many with the No. 1 defense, he showed he also has the instincts to go along with his speed and athletic ability. Look out for this guy.

Quotable

“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the experience. We’ve got guys that have been there before. We’re definitely motivated as a unit. Our linebacker unit is definitely ready to go. Vosean Joseph has been doing great, and Rayshad Jackson, Kylan Johnson. Ventrell Miller has been coming along great. David Reese, we’re happy to add him. That (linebacker) room is ready to go.” — junior inside linebacker David Reese

Probable depth chart

Rush end/OLB

96-CeCe Jefferson

99-Jachai Polite

7-Jeremiah Moon

41-James Houston

90-Andrew Chatfield

OLB

11-Vosean Joseph

7-Jeremiah Moon

4-David Reese

40-Nick Smith

ILB

33-David Reese

28-Kylan Johnson

34-Lacedrick Brunson

ILB

44-Rayshad Jackson

28-Kylan Johnson

51-Ventrell Miller

—Umstead Sanders

Ranking the SEC linebackers

Alabama

Auburn

Georgia

Texas A&M

LSU

Kentucky

Florida

South Carolina

Arkansas

Tennessee

Missouri

Mississippi State

Vanderbilt

Ole Miss

25 COMMENTS

  1. The ranking is smack dab in the middle of the SEC, no surprises there as that’s what we’re accustomed to. That also is just about where recruiting classes have tended to rank in the last few years, so that’s consistent as well. Honestly, it all sounds like a middle of the road, dead average, SEC unit. Is that what to expect then?

    No, I don’t think so, and I’m being dead honest. New defensive scheme, new defensive coordinator who is known to be aggressive and tough, and a new emphasis on strength and conditioning. Most of all, Dan Mullen back where he belongs and while realistic, fired up to the max and it’s contagious. Yeah, we may look pretty damn average to the experts and sports media…..I think that’ll change by mid-season, big time. I believe, for the first time in a long time.

    • Im with you, Mr. 6.
      On paper it is just another coach coming in saying the same things as the last 2. But for some reason I actually believe we will be dramatically better(9, maybe 10 wins if we catch some breaks) instead of just wishful thinking. Ive thought we had more talent that what showed on saturdays the last few years. All the new coaches pretty much say the same thing, so I guess the big difference that gives me a different outlook is the huge change in strength/conditioning. I think our most talented players have been held back by simply not being in the best shape they could. Not to mention I think we will not only have fewer injuries keeping players off the field, but fewer minor injuries that, while thet dont show up on the scorecard, they keep the players from being 100%.

  2. What has clearly been a weakness in the Gator defense (LB corps) is improving, but must demonstrate that this unit has greatly improved to ensure the success of our defense this year. Last year is in the rear mirror. The focus must be the present and the immediate future. GO GATORS!!!

  3. It is disappointing when Florida holds a big recruiting camp and they only get a three-star QB for the 2020 class to commit and Georgia has just another unofficial visit weekend and lands a five-star RB (number two in the nation and a RB Florida was recruiting) and a top, four-star DB as well. Mullen and his staff need to drink some of the water the Georgia coaches are selling up in Athens, if that water is legal.

    • Georgia was in the National Championship game a few months ago, while the Gators were finishing off a 4 win season. What are you not understanding about that and why do you keep trying to compare recruiting right now? Kids want to be competing for championships right now and want a proven product, not one that’s rebuilding and completely unknown. Plain and simple.

      • Joes. Texas A&M has been disappointing for several season and just fired their coach. A&M currently has the 3rd rated class right now with a new coach who came there from Florida, not Texas. There goes that theory. Oregon. A bad couple of seasons. Lost their coach. Top 5 class right now. Forget that theory again. This is Florida. Florida should have at least a top 15 class right now, and they should not be losing just about every top Florida recruit to either FSU, Miami, and just about every top program in the country. I do not buy what you are selling, and neither should Mullen or Gator Nation.

    • tampa,
      Again, you are looking at the whole recruiting thing backwards. We will win games then get the big recruits, not get big recruits then win games. Fortunately, we have a coach who has shown can get the most out of the lower ranked recruits. Id say he may have more raw talent than he ever has before, so give it a couple years and you will have your recruits. Besides, they are just verbal commitments, mullen’s team hasnt played a down yet. Why would they commit now? Why not watch us play a few games? If we win some games this season and show we are a team headed in the right direction, some of these guys will flip.

  4. Make that three for Georgia just today from their recruiting weekend. The number five inside linebacker just committed to Georgia as well. And guess what. He is from Florida. And guess what also. Florida did not even offer the number five inside linebacker from the state of Florida a scholarship to play football at Florida. Just about every other major university in the country did but Florida. Someone, please tell me what is going on with recruiting at Florida under Mullen.

    • Yeah a lot of major university’s were recruiting him, but you know who else wasn’t? FSU. Don’t you find it a bit odd that such a highly ranked Florida recruit was only being recruited by 1 of the big 3 Florida programs? Obviously something’s turning those two programs off.

  5. Agreed TG…UGA has been kicking Florida’s a** since last year on the field and now off the field recruiting with all these 5* players. In fact, Coach Smart is currently out recruiting Alabama in the short time he’s been there. The difference in the past when Florida was whipping them was the fact UGA did not have a head coach recruiting guru combined with a dynamic on field coach that knows player development so well like Kirby Smart. Gators better step up recruiting or they’ll be caught looking in the rear view mirror.

  6. I had hoped for a position coach who could really turn this unit around but I didn’t even hear a mention of him in this article. I still see no argument from anyone that he is going to prove to be better than my expectations of people that went to his university. Hopefully there is some justifiable reason (from our point if view) that these evidently good players are choosing the university of Georgia. Makes no sense to me.

  7. Speaking of recruiting, whatever happened to the pretty young blonde who Mullen brought along from MSU that immediately became the face of Gator recruiting by not only her looks but with her tweets?

  8. The depth chart and the article list CeCe first, then Polite second at rush end/OLB. Here’s hoping we find a way to have BOTH on the field at the same time, they are absolutely two of the best, if not THE best, along with possibly Jr. David Reese, of our front 7.
    As for recruiting, yes, it is painful to think about. I believe and am hopeful that Mullen will get all he can out of our players. But if GA continues to completely destroy us in recruiting, it won’t be enough.

  9. It is certainly disappointing at present to see Georgia, FSU, and Miami apparently get all the blue chippers while Florida apparently gets the scraps. Hell, one of them is even giving FAMU a look, after he dissed us, before he signs with FSU! Only evidence that Dan Mullen doesn’t know what he’s doing, I guess.

    But to paraphrase a very savvy pal of ours, Daz Wazzle, what do you expect them to do? We’re a 4-7, mediocre, program who hasn’t claimed elite status in at least 7 years and probably longer! Most of these kids were in 3rd grade the last time we won a national championship! They don’t associate Florida with anything but losers and occasionally lucky. In the meantime, we hired Dan Mullen to get us back to where we’re accustomed to being, and damned if we’re not ready to pull the rug out from under him before he even has a chance to get started. Regardless of the reality, I guess he’s supposed to have some kind of magic pixie dust fly out of his butt to make all these athletes overlook it?

    If you let him build it, they will come.

      • Exactly Smith,
        We are still a brand name, clearly not what we were, but one of the big boys regardless. We dont need to be UCF and go undefeated to get on the 5*s radar. We just have to win some games, preferbly by scoring alot of points, and generally show the program is headed in the right direction under a stable staff. Alot of recruits would jump at the chance to be on the team that brings a former elite program back to its former glory. Especially if they think that they are “The” guy that will carry the team back to the promised land. Hopefully, that is exactly what we will look like at the end of the season, a well coached team that is just a star player or two away from competing for NC’s.

  10. Kirby smart got to the dance with Mark Richt’s players. They lost their one and two punch at RB. They lost several LB’s and DB’s. Players want to be 3 and out and to play as a freshman. Now, We have 5 RB’s and are recruiting hybrid players on D. Ga. offensive line lost their stud tackle…Coaches are in the business to build and Kirby got off to a great start with someone’s else’s players. Time will tell so don’t jump off the ledge. I remember that when Steve came along the SEC and fans were like “his offense will not work we are a running conference”
    History made! Urban comes along after Zook and uses his players to win a NC! with a spread offense. You have to have a stud at QB because in every case a super QB was there. Leak, Tebow…Leak was a Zooker recruit while Tebow was Urban’s recruit. Fromm from Ga. is helping with the recruits because he has come in and lit it up and players love a great QB to play with. Our problem is we do not have this weapon in our QB’s. Will one appear out of nowhere with a new coach? We’ll see.

    • It’s just possible that we already have one on board, if the O-line can come up to at least average. Or maybe not, like you say, Gary, “we’ll see”. I think that’s definitely what makes this season both exciting and terrifying at the same time!