Florida Gators linebacker Derek Wingo making strides at new position and with new coaching staff

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

The return of both Amari Burney and Ventrell Miller should make Florida’s inside linebacker unit one of the most proven position groups on the roster, at least on paper. 

The pair of fifth-year playmakers provides the Gators a duo with experience, seeing as Miller combined for 143 tackles in the two years prior to the 2021 campaign and Burney manned the middle for much of last season in Miller’s absence. 

But with Burney and Miller set to complete their collegiate careers at the end of the season, the Gators must identify who will carry the torch once they’ve departed Gainesville, and that process can’t wait until next spring, or even the 2022 campaign. 

Leadership role:Linebacker Antwaun Powell progressing as a vocal leader on Florida Gators' defense

More LBs:Florida Gators like what they see in Diwun Black: An inside linebacker with 'DB skills'

New coach:Billy Napier hires former UNC assistant Jay Bateman to coach Gators' inside linebackers

It’s been an ongoing operation since before Billy Napier and his coaching staff arrived on campus, though it took significant steps forward in spring camp with the decision to move senior Diwun Black from STAR to inside linebacker. 

However, when it comes to players in the inside linebacker group, Black isn’t the only one in the room adjusting to a new position. 

Derek Wingo 'has been awesome'

Derek Wingo, the No. 5 outside linebacker and the No. 64 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class in 247Sports’ composite rankings, made strides throughout the spring after appearing in all 13 games in 2021, though Wingo is now playing inside rather than outside on the edge. 

“Derek has been awesome. I think he loves football and loves Florida,” inside linebacker coach Jay Bateman said. “I feel like he’s probably putting some pressure on himself, but I think he’s doing it at a really high level right now. His situation is unique — I recruited him in high school, tried to — because it’s a very different position than he played growing up. I think he’s just starting to feel comfortable back there, but he’s a stud of a kid.”

Florida Gator linebackers Khris Bogle (8) and Derek Wingo (15) celebrate a fumble recovery in the second half against Georgia on Oct. 30, 2021, at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

Despite having already appeared in 22 games during his two seasons with the program, Wingo has recorded just 17 tackles, of which only five have been solo tackles. 

At inside linebacker, where he’ll have to stop both the run and the pass, Wingo will be required to wrap up in the open field and in the backfield, so there’s been an emphasis on improving as a tackler since Bateman arrived on campus. 

When it came to pointing out all of the wrap-ups Florida missed last season, Bateman didn’t hold back. 

“That was actually in our first meeting. The first meeting with coach Bateman, the first plays he put up on the board were all the missed tackles from last year. Not all of them but a majority of the missed tackles, the wrong angles, side tackling, arm tackling, all of that,” Wingo recalled. “Then he came back with a list of things and how we’re going to fix that, the drills that we’re going to do to be able to fix that going into the season, because that’s a big deal for us linebackers.”

With two newcomers in the room, along with a change at position coach, the linebacker unit realized 15 spring practices wouldn’t be enough to make the desired improvements. Plus, Miller would miss more than half of the practice sessions due to a conflict with his class schedule, the unit quickly sought to meet outside the confines of the program. 

“We’re doing a lot of extra meetings, stuff like that. We’ve been meeting on our own. We have veteran guys in our group like Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney. It doesn’t get better than that. Guys that have been here for a long time and have played a lot of good football,” Wingo said. “To kind of just learn from and gain experience from them, and them to be able to teach us younger guys, it’s just making us better at the end of the day.”

Facing AR-15 helping linebackers learn

Facing a dual-threat quarterback in Anthony Richardson has also aided the group, considering his skill set frequently keeps the opposing defense guessing. 

“I have a chance to go against him in every practice,” Wingo said during spring camp. “He’s a leader. He’s earned a lot of respect from this team. Everyone trusts him.”

Whether it’s tackling in the open field, dropping into coverage or picking up the runner, Wingo has to anticipate all aspects of an offense. Hence the benefit of facing — and learning from — Richardson on a consistent basis.

“If we’re playing a team that has a quarterback like that, you have to prepare for that. When it’s a dual-threat quarterback that can make those down the field throws, it’s something you have to prepare for,” Wingo said. “I have to be aware of him being able to just take off and running, make those big plays downfield and just be a guy that can just get off on the run and make a sidearm throw across the field.”

Spring lessons:Five things we learned about Florida football from the Orange and Blue game

In Florida’s Orange and Blue game, Wingo had a reprieve from the task of corralling Richardson, with the two paired as teammates on the Blue team. Against the Jack Miller-led Orange, Wingo collected five tackles, two of which were solo tackles, to go along with one of the Blue team’s two tackles for loss. It may have been the second-string unit, but his performance on April 14 was a sign the inside linebacker spot should be in good hands when it’s eventually Wingo’s time to man the middle. 

Considering injuries can unfortunately occur at any time — Miller, while not injury-prone, serves as an example in more ways than one — it may be sooner than many think. 

“I feel like I have a purpose. I feel like I’m being developed. I just have to be consistent every day, go out there and work hard and work on my craft. Also, to be a leader. Being vocal, so when those guys look to me, they know I have their back,” Wingo said. “That’s just the biggest part of growing up and going into my junior season. I’m just real excited. I feel more comfortable to make plays with these guys out there. I have their back and they’ve got mine.”