Gators encouraged by play of Hopper, Pierre after duo impress against Vanderbilt

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida linebackers Andrew Chatfield Jr. (10) and Jesiah Pierre line up before the snap last Saturday against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.

Ventrell Miller was forced out with an injury in Florida’s 38-17 win over Vanderbilt, and reserve linebackers James Houston and Jeremiah Moon were unavailable for last Saturday’s contest — leading the Gators defense, in sticking with one of the team’s mottos, to once again turn to the next man up to help close out the game.

In this case, the names called were those of redshirt freshmen linebackers Tyron Hopper and Jesiah Pierre, and both players capitalized on the situation in the eyes of their teammates and coaches.

The duo combined for seven tackles in the second half, as UF outscored the Commodores 21-7 over the final 30 minutes, and each player made noticeable plays when given a chance to perform. 

Pierre entered in the first half, although he wouldn’t show up in the stat book until the third quarter prior to Miller’s exit when he combined with defensive tackle Kyree Campbell to tackle Vanderbilt running back Ja’Veon Marlow after a 4-yard gain. 

He’d get his second wrap-up on Vandy’s next drive, too, as Pierre and defensive lineman Zachary Carter stopped Rocko Griffin after a 1-yard gain, although the Commodores would hit a 58-yard touchdown two plays later. And on Vanderbilt’s penultimate drive of the afternoon, which saw the winless hosts register just 39 yards on 12 plays, Hopper was in on the play nearly every time. 

He would help wrap up for the tackle on three of the first seven plays, evoking questions on social media — admittedly from those not privy to the team’s daily preparation — as to why he’d only just been given an extended look during games, especially with Florida’s defense anything but flawless this season.

Although UF’s tendency in 2020 to allow the opposition to strike for huge chunks of yardage certainly remains a concern for Florida’s defense, coordinator Todd Grantham was nevertheless encouraged by the performances of those lacking experience. 

“He’s been fortunate. Like when he’s been in there, man, we’ve had some crossdog (blitzes) inside. He’s been able, if you go back, he’s been able to accomplish some stuff. I think he’s a good young player,” Grantham said of Hopper. “We evaluate all of our players in practice, everything that they do, and we’re going to try to get guys the reps that they earn. The thing about that game, at the last two-minute drive or the score situation when we got the pick, there were a lot of young players in there during that time frame. Jesiah Pierre basically played three quarters of the game for us when Ventrell went out for us because James already was out. You know, Hop was in there, Tre’Vez (Johnson) was in there, Rashad (Torrence) was in there. So there was a lot of young players in there, and we’ll continue to develop that because as you get into the end of the season you never know when you’re going to need guys.” 

Florida’s injury woes surely don’t compare to the Gators of several seasons ago, where UF averaged 9.9 starters missing throughout the 2016 season by the time UF arrived in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. However, as Grantham notes, injuries can strike seemingly at a moment’s notice; add in the COVID-19 protocols along with the potential for unexpected absences to result due to contact tracing and quarantining, and you have a situation where coaching staffs are eager to play reserves when the opportunity presents itself. 

The Gators are counting on redshirt linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper.

“I think any time you go from a high school level of play to an SEC level of play there's a major jump. And when you really haven't had, say, training camp or spring ball and you kind of get thrown into the fire, yeah, there's gains there, but some of the development doesn't take place that you'd like. So you kind of do it on the run and you kind of try to work that, so that's what we'll continue to do,” said Grantham. “I think we play a lot of players and we’ll continue to play a lot of players.” 

Miller, whose injury isn’t expected to keep him out of Florida’s post-Thanksgiving match-up with Kentucky, was excited to see his second-year teammates get a chance Saturday to showcase their respective development. 

After all, Miller knows he wouldn’t have been nearly as prepared to secure the middle linebacker spot this season if it weren’t for him capitalizing on his moments to perform as an underclassman. And with the defense still in flux when it comes to fine-tuning the remaining issues, anyone who can perform may get a similar shot over the final three games of the regular season. 

“It’s always great to see the young guys get the opportunity to go out there versus the SEC, big opponents, and basically, when everybody knows what they’re doing,” Miller said. “I feel like all them young guys, they do a great job out there taking control of the defense.”

Saturday

Who: Kentucky (3-5) vs. No. 5 Florida (6-1)

When: Noon

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850