Wherever he goes, whatever he does, Brandon Spikes knows that he’s being watched like a hawk. The moment he lets up on the practice field, even if it’s at the tail end of a play with the action far removed, he knows Brandon Siler is watching him, ready to jump all over him and let him have it with both barrels if he doesn’t go full speed until the whistle blows to end the play.
If there is a visible leader to this Florida football team, perhaps the successor to Vernell Brown as the “face of Florida football,” it’s Siler, the junior middle linebacker from Orlando. Siler leads vocally and he leads by example. Whatever he needs to do to help the Gators become a better football team, he does it. He goes all out every play, every drill and pity the player that slacks a little bit on Brandon Siler’s watch. Go half-hearted, even if it’s one of those monotonous, same thing over and over again drills, and Brandon Siler is in your face, letting you know that’s not the way things are done around here.
And that’s just the kind of mentor that Brandon Spikes needs. Spikes is a 6-4, 230-pound freshman middle linebacker from Shelby, North Carolina, rated five stars by Scout.com and a US Army All-American. He’s the guy that proved he belonged the first day of practice for the US Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio when he knocked Ohio State-bound tailback Chris Wells, rated the best running back in the nation, somewhere into next week. That big hit was Spikes’ formal announcement that there would be hell to pay running against him that week. His reputation as a big hit artist preceded him to Gainesville where he’s expected to lower the hammer on Gator opponents the next four years.
With Siler watching his every move — pushing, prodding, encouraging, and if necessary, going face mask to face mask — Spikes knows that he’s expected to play as hard as he can every single play every single day. There are no days off. There are no plays off.
“He [Siler] is the best at his position here so I listen to him and whatever he says to do, that’s what I do,” said Spikes. “He stays on me a lot but it’s because he wants me to play hard and be the best I can be.”
Siler has been assigned to Spikes as his “big brother.” That means Siler has to do everything in his power to bring Spikes along as quickly as possible so that the stripe can come off the freshman’s helmet. Getting the black stripe removed from the helmet of every Florida freshman is a big deal. It will be a particularly big deal for Spikes to have Siler rip the stripe off his helmet so he can officially be a Florida Gator.
“That’s why I come to practice and work hard every day trying to get my stripe taken off so I can be a Gator,” said Spikes, who has worked his way into the two-deep rotation as Siler’s backup at middle linebacker.
Spikes came to Gainesville with probably as much hype as any high school linebacker in the country. Those who weren’t convinced he was one of the top two or three at his position only needed that first day in San Antonio at the Army game to know he’s got that special combination of size, speed and instincts to be a dominator at his position. That’s why the Gator Nation erupted that Saturday afternoon during the nationally televised game when Spikes chose the Gators over Alabama and Virginia Tech.
A lot of high school All-Americans arrive at their college destination convinced that they should be starters from day one. Spikes arrived with no such illusions and the black stripe on his helmet served as a reminder that this is a brand new start where the past means nothing at all. He didn’t mind that one little bit.
“I liked it [the stripe] from the start because around here you have to earn everything,” he said. “You come out of high school a five-star player but once you’re hear that doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to earn it all. Nobody’s going to give you anything.”
Getting the stripe off is a big deal because it will mean he’s earned his way onto the. Having Siler rip it off his helmet is almost as big a deal because it will mean that the player Brandon Spikes looks up to and respects the most officially welcomed him onto the team.
“He took me under his wing when I first got here and he’s teaching me daily, step by step, letting me know that things are different here than they were in high school,” said Siler. “I can’t do some of the things I did in high school here. He stays on me all the time, trying to let me know that I have to play smarter every single play.”
In high school, Spikes went against maybe one or two outstanding players every game. He could get away with a few bad habits because he was simply better than everybody on his team and nearly everybody he faced on game nights. All that changed when he got to Florida.
“Everybody here is good or they wouldn’t be here,” he said.
He learned quickly why he can’t take even one play off, too.
“You see five different running backs coming at you, all of them big, fast and strong,” he said. “One right after the other one. One guy goes out and the next one’s just as good.
“Then you look at the receivers and all of them are fast and strong. Everybody is good here. You have to bring it every single play. They’ll embarrass you if you take a play off.”
His play hard every down attitude is shared by the other 25 freshmen that are part of Florida’s recruiting class. Spikes says they’ve bonded since day one and they’ve made it a collective goal to leave Florida together and with some championship rings on their fingers.
“Since the day I got here, everywhere we go we’re always together,” he said. “I think we’re going to be real close and we’re going to finish with all 26 of us together.”
But the experience won’t be complete without some championship rings.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “We came here to win championships. We’re going to win them together.”