Florida Gators National Signing Day preview: linebacker

Perhaps nowhere on the field for the Florida Gators needs help more than at linebacker. The position grouping in 2017 had only one blue chip recruit among its ranks — former 4-star Jeremiah Moon — and it showed. Especially with the defense transitioning from the 4-3 to a 3-4, this class’s linebackers must lay the foundation for a rebuild at the position.

Here is where Florida stands at linebacker looking ahead to National Signing Day. Past installments have looked at quarterback, running back, wide receivers and tight ends, offensive line, and defensive line.

All recruiting rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite, which balances recruiting rankings from all of the major services.

  • Departing: Cristian Garcia
  • Returning: RJR Kylan Johnson, RJR Rayshad Jackson, JR David Reese, JR Vosean Joseph, RSO Jeremiah Moon, RFR James Houston, RFR Ventrell Miller, RFR Nick Smith, RFR Lacedrick Brunson
  • Signed: David Reese, 4-star (0.9003)
  • Committed: None
  • Targets: Andrew Chatfield, 4-star (0.9196); Caleb Tannor, 4-star (0.8958); Malik Langham, 4-star (0.8975); Caleb Johnson, 3-star (0.8738)

Last years’ linebacking corps was a mess. There were basically only five players who were playing, with Reese, Joseph, and Moon usually the ones getting the top line of the weekly depth chart and Johnson and Garcia getting significant snaps.

Garcia was a nice story as a former walk-on who ended up playing a lot as a senior, but his contributions were mostly born out of necessity. Reese was the best of them, but he’s not as gifted an athlete as some of the offensive players he was up against. They all had a hard time being difference makers in Randy Shannon’s basic defense, and all were lost at sea in pass coverage.

The pipeline at the position is difficult to assess given that none of the four 2017 signees saw the field. Suspensions held out Houston and Miller, who recently rejoined the team. They were supposed to provide some much-needed depth, but instead they spent the fall away from the team. A preseason knee injury derailed Smith’s 2017 and led him to redshirt, while Brunson was a project as a signee and not ready to contribute at the collegiate level.

That leaves four linebackers with experience, four redshirt freshmen, and a marginal contributor in Jackson. Things are dicey, to say the least.

Making matters more confusing to a degree is the team’s switch to a 3-4 base defense. As one of the four linebacker spots is a hybrid OLB/DE kind of spot, the unit will get reinforcements from the team’s defensive end ranks. Jabari Zuniga probably won’t get a look there, but any of Cece Jefferson, Jachai Polite, and Antonneous Clayton could try out at the position.

Accordingly, the names on the targets list should look familiar to those following this series because they appeared on the defensive line installment as defensive end targets as well. Tannor has talked to the staff about playing outside linebacker, and though Langham apparently spoke mostly about being a defensive end on his visit over the weekend, Todd Grantham has broached the topic of him being an edge rusher who also drops back into coverage. Chatfield also visited this past weekend, but Miami is after him strongly as well.

To make a long story short, it’ll be tough to say precisely which of the returning defensive ends and signees listed as defensive ends by recruiting services will play outside linebacker before UF puts out an official roster for spring practice.

The only for-sure linebacker to sign is Vero Beach’s David Reese, who is not related to the David Reese from Michigan who is already on the roster. The younger Reese was committed to the old staff but was a target of Mullen’s at Mississippi State, so he already had a relationship brewing with the new UF head coach. He’s an outside linebacker by trade, though his versatility will be useful throughout the various positions.

With all of this discussion about outside linebackers, it must be noted that UF will have two inside backers in the base defense instead of one as before. The elder David Reese is the only true middle linebacker in the bunch with Garcia gone, which means at least one guy is going to need to convert to that spot to line up alongside him. Johnson is the closest to Reese’s listed size among the returning linebackers, but as a former high school safety, he might be most useful in a position with more pass coverage than a 3-4 inside backer. Joseph, who’s never been shy of contact, might end up the guy asked to bulk up for the job since he’s good at stopping screens and nothing else in the pass game.

This position grouping has the most uncertainty of any for UF this year. Some of the roles are changing with the new defensive scheme, and depth will be entirely dependent on signees from 2017 and 2018 who haven’t played a game snap in college. Getting it into good shape is the biggest challenge for the new defensive coaching staff.