Gators have a mix of experience, potential at linebacker
Who: No. 6 Florida vs. Ole Miss
Where: Vaught Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
When: Noon, Sept. 26
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
We break down the 2020 Florida football team by position group. Today a look at the linebackers.
Replacing the production and leadership of David Reese is a priority, and the coaches are confident they’ve found their guy in junior Ventrell Miller, who has had a strong preseason camp and given every indication he has the skill set to potentially be an elite middle linebacker. He has one thing Reese did not have — the speed to match up against running backs and tight ends in pass coverage, which makes him more of a three-down player.
Miller saw significant playing time last season, along with James Houston, Lacedrick Brunson, Armari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate, so the Gators have experience across the board.
Diabate saw most of his playing time at the rush-end position last season as a true freshman and flashed excellent pass-rushing skills. He’s spending more time in the linebacker room now and likely will see playing time at both positions.
Perhaps the most versatile player on the defense is Burney, a junior who has played safety, nickel (the star position) and linebacker over the course of his career. Most of his playing time this season likely will come at outside linebacker, where he’s shown playmaking ability the past two seasons.
Overall, this is a fast, physical, versatile group, with multiple players capable of playing all the linebacker spots.
The coaching staff is high on the true freshmen who redshirted last season — Ty’Ron Hopper, Jesiah Pierre and Lloyd Summerall III.
Unlike his first two years at UF, linebackers coach Christian Robinson has plenty of bodies — and plenty of options — to work at all the linebacker spots.
Other than Brunson, a junior, the Gators don’t have much in the way of proven depth behind the starters. Diabate saw significant playing time last season, but most of it came at rush end. Hopper, Pierre, Summerall and sophomore Andrew Chatfield are excellent prospects, but have seen only limited playing time.
Given the lack of proven depth, the pressure will be on the starters to stay healthy, especially early in the season to give the young players time to settle in.
Young guy to watch
True freshman Derek Wingo. He was one of the highest-rated recruits in the 2020 class and comes from an elite high school program — Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas — that has him prepared, mentally and physically, to possibly have an immediate impact at one of the linebacker spots. He figures to be an instant starter on special teams, with a chance to move his way into the playing rotation at LB over the course of the season.
Don’t be surprised if …
Miller, a junior, emerges as an All-SEC player from his middle linebacker spot. He came close to having a breakout season last year and finished the year strong with an outstanding performance in the Orange Bowl. He’s physically and mentally put himself in position to replace David Reese III — as a player and leader. He’s lost weight, gained speed and has a complete grasp of the defense and will be calling the defensive signals.
"I do believe we have a lot of depth, and I think that that's just been great to have because it's next guy up in terms of motivating and competition, having guys in your room that have been in the system for going on three seasons now. It really creates depth, and I know that was a problem when we first got here. Everybody was like, 'Who's going to be the guy?’ And obviously injuries. And David Reese moving on, it was a great leadership loss, but when you have those guys move on, guys like Ventrell Miller step up. And if you talk to anybody on the staff, he's been vocal. He's on the leadership committee. Just the depth that we have because of those guys being here for a while and then you add in young guys like Jesiah Pierre and Ty’Ron Hopper and Derek Wingo coming in. I feel spoiled just because I have bodies, so it's the next-guy-up mentality.
— Linebackers coach Christian Robinson
Possible depth chart
-- Derek Wingo
Ranking the SEC linebackers
9. Texas A&M
10. Ole Miss
11. South Carolina
12. Mississippi State