Florida redshirt freshman linebacker James Houston IV didn’t mince his words when asked who has stepped up as a leader for Florida in the absence of David Reese.
“No one has filled that role,” Houston said. “It was like a piece of us left.”
Florida’s defense won’t be at full strength all season — star sophomore cornerback Marco Wilson went down with an injury before Reese or defensive end Cece Jefferson could return — and the rush defense has left much to be desired throughout the first three games of the season.
But Florida’s first road contest also gives the Gators their initial opportunity to see how the front seven performs when junior linebacker David Reese returns Saturday to face Tennessee at 7 p.m. in Knoxville.
Reese, who has missed a month of team-related activities while he recovers from a high ankle sprain, is expected to make his 2018 debut, once again giving UF a boost with the return of a vital contributor.
In Florida’s 48-10 win over Colorado State last Saturday, it was Jefferson who returned to the field following an academic-related suspension. Although his efforts didn’t show up in the stat sheet, Jefferson made a critical block during Freddie Swain’s punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“Everybody’s trying to get key blocks,” Swain said of the block on his touchdown. “Special teams, I would say from my perspective is more important than any offensive play or defensive play.”
After a rough start to Jefferson’s senior season, sound contributions on special teams will go a long way in earning him playing time, in addition to displaying ideal leadership to the team.
The need for improved leadership is something coach Dan Mullen has harped on frequently during discussions pertaining to necessary improvements inside the program.
“I’d love the leadership to continue to grow where it’s not just coming from us, where the guys get more comfortable in the program. I don’t think there’s a lack of leadership; I think there’s uncertainty. I think there’s guys on the team that could become really good leaders,” Mullen said following UF’s win over the Rams. “They’re still learning how the program’s expected to be. Guys are learning when to step up, when to lead, how to lead. They’re still taking care of themselves so the coaches are doing it.”
One of several players who has made a leap in the leadership department is sophomore cornerback CJ Henderson. A quiet and reserved presence off of the field, Henderson doesn’t seem as if he would take the onus himself to assume a vocal role in the locker room. Instead, Henderson has displayed leadership qualities through his actions, according to defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, with a little coaxing and encouragement mixed in. But at the end of the day, the proof lies in Henderson’s actions.
“When you say leadership, he didn’t jump up and down and (yell). He said, ‘This is what I do to get better. You guys should try it because it’s been working for me.’ Him and Marco did that every day, every practice, Summer, Fall, it didn’t matter, and now you see most of the guys out there doing the same work. So I think that’s part of the leadership role without definitely being a vocal guy.”
That mindset — display leadership rather than state it — is an approach the UF defense as a whole will look to embody when Florida hits the road to face the Volunteers.
“You don’t a lot of times have to say anything to be a leader because what you’re doing is showing people with your actions,” Warren said. “Those actions sometimes speak a lot louder than words.”