With Florida’s well documented depth problems at linebacker, it’s no secret that the Gators need production in 2006 from its fast, talented freshmen. Last Saturday, the Florida coaching staff got a good look at Dustin Doe and Brandon Spikes and both of the young guys did enough good things to rate their freshman debut performances as impressive.
As to be expected the young guys were a little overwhelmed by the crowd when they came running through the tunnel to open up the game. The Gators had the usual 90,000-plus in The Swamp last Saturday and typically, it was loud from start to finish. Doe, who played high school football at Live Oak Suwannee was really impressed with the crowd.
“It was all a surprise … everyone was saying it is electrifying and all of that, but you just never know until you get there,” Doe said. “It was a great and electrifying experience. It was a nice crowd, they were amped up and the team was amped up.”
The young guys were excited, but were able to focus enough to make an early impact in the game. In a scenario that is pretty hard to imagine, Doe and Spikes actually each made a tackle on the first play they were in the game.
At 6-4, and 235 pounds Brandon Spikes is an imposing specimen even for a true freshmen. The former Shelby (NC) Crest linebacker had his number called earlier than expected when starting linebacker Brandon Siler broke his helmet. Spikes didn’t disappoint as he stuffed the middle of the line and the running back for no gain on his very first play ever as a Gator.
“I was shocked, I never thought it would be that soon,” Spike said. “When I got out there I made sure I didn’t make a mistake and I just made the tackle.”
That lone shot could be the catalyst for an early maturation by Spikes.
“The tackle gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “Everyone told me I did a great job. It just feels great. I think they know I am ready to go so if B-Si (Siler) was to go down, I would be ready.”
For Doe it was more of a planned happening for him. He is on the starting kick coverage unit, one of the front guys whose job it is to split the wedge and make the tackle. On Florida’s first kickoff, the 6-0, 215 pounder launched himself like a missile to absolutely destroy the Southern Miss kick returner, sending the Florida crowd into a frenzy.
“Being able to make the play on the first play in the first time in the stadium, I just felt like I was very prepared,” Doe said. “The coaches do a great job of preparing us, so making a play wasn’t a surprise because I knew what my responsibility and job was. I had no doubt I would get the job done.
“It felt great to make that tackle, not because I made it but because right after that the defense went out and exploded. Our goal on special teams is to get the offense or defense in good field position and give them some momentum and I felt like I did that. The crowd was great. I never dreamed about it, because if I did when it happened I knew it might come up short. When it happened I looked up and the crowd was going wild and it was a great experience.”
The young pups at linebacker have some experienced and talented players ahead of them right now. They aren’t in a rush to get on the field, but when it comes time, they think the older guys will have been instrumental in their preparation for full time duty. Spikes is learning from an all-American candidate in junior Brandon Siler.
“When I first got here (learning everything) was messing with my mind and I feel better now,” Spikes said. “They are great players and I watch everything they do. Watching film, looking over plays, watching the opponent, I do all of that. They help get me prepared. The next step for me is if they call my name again, I want to get the job done just like B-Si.”
Doe is taking in things from Siler and seniors Earl Everett and Brian Crum. The experience of the three linebackers has helped the transition from high school go relatively well for Doe at this stage of his college career.
“I am beginning to get very comfortable,” Doe said. “I am playing behind Earl, B-Si, and Crum and learning a lot from all three. When I first got here everything was moving real fast. After getting some repetitions and watching and learning, the game is starting to slow down a little bit and I am getting comfortable.”
The two freshmen got a few snaps on defense late in the game and between them finished with six tackles. It is just a bit of experience, but guaranteed to lessen the butterflies for the next time they are called to action.
“I got maybe four snaps at the end of the game,” Doe said. “It was a good experience and I got the feel for the game. All the people yelling and looking at me screaming my name, it was a great experience.”
“I wasn’t out there much, but I made a couple of tackles and was out there for about ten plays,” said Spikes.
Where do they go from here? Doe knows there is a lot more to learn. The time in the games now is fun and building character and a base for the future. The main goal is to be prepared for when their time to play has arrived.
“As the season progresses we are just looking forward to learning,” Doe said. “We know it is a learning experience. We are like sponges right now and are just soaking it all in. When our numbers are called we want to know what to do. We don’t know when we will get in again, but when that time comes we want to be ready.”
Co-Defensive Coordinator and Linebacker Coach Charlie Strong knows the Gators are just one ankle sprain or concussion away from relying on a true freshman to play a big role on Saturdays. The hope is they have the year to learn behind the older guys and insert them on occasion to give the upperclassmen a rest. Right now it is too early to judge how good they might really become.
“They didn’t play enough plays so it’s too early to judge them, but they are coming along good, learning, adjusting, and playing real well,” Strong said. “[Them playing a lot] just depends, we are only an injury away from depending on them. It all depends on how healthy we stay.”
If anything, these freshmen are confident. They have been prepared to expect anything and they feel ready to be able to handle whatever happens.
“When we got here they told us once we get this far, they don’t allow us an excuse for being a freshman,” Doe said. “There are no freshmen and none of that other stuff. They tell us we have to make the play because we are a Gator.”