Scouting Florida’s 2020 Opponents: Ranking the linebackers

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Florida tight end Kyle Pitts runs with the ball as Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton defends during the first half of their game Nov. 16, 2019, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

 It was expected to be an important and competitive spring for Florida’s linebackers to see who would fill the hole — playing wise and leadership wise — left by the graduation of middle linebacker David Reese.

 But, then of course, there was no spring, so the competition will now take place — hopefully — in August or soon after that.

 It’s going to be an important position battle whenever the Gators get back together on the practice field. Reese is going to be a tough guy to replace. Not only has he been one of UF’s most productive players, he’s been one of the team’s biggest leaders.

 In his four years at UF, Reese, the quarterback of the defense, started 38 games and piled up 322 total tackles and 20.0 tackles for losses. He was one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the SEC the past three seasons.

 The leader to replace him is junior Ventrell Miller, a fast, hard-hitting MLB who came on strong in the second half of last season and closed out his year with an outstanding performance in the Gators’ victory over Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

 He’ll be getting strong competition from veteran Lacedrick Brunson and promising redshirt freshman Jesiah Pierre. Junior James Houston, the likely starter at outside linebacker, also probably will get reps at middle linebacker.

 While the situation at linebacker still needs to be settled for the Gators, there are numerous well-established starters returning around the SEC at linebacker.

 Here are the top 10 linebackers the Gators will face in 2020:

  1. Nick Bolton, Missouri — The Tigers have a history of developing talent, and Bolton is the latest example. He was a three-star prospect coming out of high school who has become a five-star player at Missouri. And the transformation has happened rather quickly. Bolton was a consensus All-SEC pick as a sophomore last season after recording a whopping 107 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses, two interceptions and eight pass break-ups. He’s the total package.
  2. Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee — Unlike Bolton, To’o To’o was one of the top-rated prospects in the nation coming out of high school, a five-star stud who was considered a can’t-miss prospect. And he hasn’t. He started as a true freshman last fall, making plays all over the field. He had 72 tackles and broke up two passes — and showed he is on the fast track to stardom in the SEC.
  3. Jabril Cox, LSU — Cox is a graduate transfer from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, where he was a first-team All-American the past two seasons. He was a major player on three national championship teams at NDS, amassing a combined 258 tackles, 32 tackles for losses and 14 sacks in three seasons. He is expected to have an immediate, and profound, impact with the Tigers.
  4. Ernest Jones, South Carolina — Do you remember that linebacker making plays all over the field in the Gamecocks’ upset at Georgia last season? Well, this is the guy. Instinctive, fast and athletic, Jones is a tackling machine. He totaled almost 100 last season (97) and also had 5.5 tackles for losses, two interceptions and five pass break-ups.
  5. Lakia Henry, Ole Miss — You’re not always sure what you’re going to get with junior college transfers, but Henry turned out to be a gem for the Rebels last season after making the move from Dodge City Community College. An instant starter, Henry led the Rebels in tackles last season with 88, to go along with 5.5 tackles for losses and one sack.
  6. Monty Rice, Georgia — The Gators know all about this guy. He had nine tackles in UGA’s win over UF last season in Jacksonville, making plays all over the field. That’s what he does. A second-team All-SEC pick last season, he led the ‘Dogs in tackles with 89 in 2019.
  7. Emmett Rice, Georgia — He’s no relation to Monty Rice, but they do have similar playing styles. FSU’s Rice was stellar last season, recording 72 tackles. 4.5 tackles for losses and 1.5 sacks. 
  8. Jacquez Jones, Ole Miss — How did Nick Saban let this kid get away. Jones, who is from Tuscaloosa, had a breakout season in his sophomore year in 2019, recording 71 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses and forcing two fumbles. He and Henry give the Rebels a strong one-two punch at linebacker.
  9. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia — Here’s yet another young rising star on a UGA defense that is loaded with talent. As a sophomore last season, he was named UGA’s most improved defensive player after starting 13 games and recording 5.5 sacks and a whopping 34 quarterback pressures coming off the edge.
  10. Dimitri Moore, Vanderbilt — He came out of nowhere as a redshirt sophomore last season to become one of the most productive linebackers in the SEC. He finished the season among the top 10 tacklers in the conference, totaling 99, six for losses, to go along with five pass break-ups.