Coming out of Crest High School in Shelby, North Carolina, Brandon Spikes felt like Superman. He was the biggest, baddest, hardest hitting high school linebacker in the country with US Army All-American credentials to prove it. He figured he would start three years for the Florida Gators and then it would be off to the NFL. This was going to be a snap.
At least that’s what he had convinced himself before he arrived in Gainesville last summer. It didn’t take long for Spikes to conclude that maybe, just maybe, he had over-estimated a few things and maybe he didn’t have all the answers. Not only did he have plenty to learn, he was going to spend most of his freshman year in mop-up roles. He did get extensive playing time against South Carolina, subbing for injured Brandon Siler. In that game he had three tackles including one for a loss. He had six tackles and a defended pass the next week against Western Carolina in his only start of the year but the next week against Florida State he dressed but didn’t see any playing time.
That’s not at all what he expected.
The numbers for 2006 read 15 tackles. He averaged that many tackles a game in high school. He started four years in high school. He played in only nine of the Gators’ 14 games. After an Army All-American senior year in high school where he was the guy everybody in the country wanted to a bit player on a national championship team required swallowing a lot of pride.
“It humbled me a lot, a whole lot,” said Spikes after Monday’s practice.
The humbling process meant taking a back seat to veterans like Earl Everett and Brandon Siler. Everett had three years of starting experience and Siler had two. As team leaders, they helped to settle Spikes and make him understand that he would have to wait his turn.
“I had very high expectations to come in here and play early,” said Spikes, a 6-4, 245-pound sophomore. “I know I had great guys playing in front of me but I just had to learn and just get in the easy stuff, the bases of the game, and Siler and Earl taught me that.”
Siler was last year’s middle linebacker and the vocal leader of the Florida defense. He spent a lot of time with Spikes, teaching him the ropes and keeping him mentally ready to play even though it was a frustrating situation.
“Just be ready, play away so when your number’s called because everybody is depending on you” is what Siler told Spikes last year, and that’s what Spikes is trying to pass down to freshmen like Lorenzo Edwards. Edwards is an Army All-American, just like Spikes, and he’s also discovering that it’s a whole new ball game at the next level.
“I think Lorenzo Edwards is coming along great,” said Spikes. “He’s handling things a whole lot better than I did last year as a true freshman. I think he’s going to be a great player. The rest of those guys, it just takes time to transition from high school to college, but I think they’ll be ready by game one.”
Handling things better is something that Spikes wishes he had done in the offseason. He got into Coach Urban Meyer’s doghouse for awhile and that meant decisions had to be made.
“Our program is based on toughness and never giving up no matter how hard it is,” Spikes said. “I bought into the human element, but I’m pretty sure he trusts me now.”
Before Meyer could trust Spikes again, there was a spring encounter with the coach. Never one to sugar coat things, Meyer got straight to the heart of the matter with his potentially great linebacker.
“Coach told me it’s time to grow up right now,” said Spikes. “Most guys, they have a few years, but he told me to grow up right now.”
Spikes had to grow up. Florida’s linebacking corps had to have a leader and the defense needed another player to rally around. With Siler, Everett and Brian Crum all leaving for the NFL, Spikes, Dustin Doe and Ryan Stamper were the only linebackers on the Florida roster with experience and all three are sophomores. The three of them combined for 41 tackles last season. Behind them are one redshirt freshman and five true freshmen.
When he came to camp this August, Spikes was determined to make a difference. He wanted to be the same kind of leader that Brandon Siler was. He wanted to be the guy that could lead both vocally and physically. So far, he’s seen the results he was hoping for.
“I just came and trained hard, stepped it up and tried to make everybody around me better and a lot of guys followed,” he said.
Siler’s legacy at the middle linebacker position is one that Spikes takes seriously. Brandon Siler never lacked for effort and was an in your face leader that got the best out of his teammates. Spikes has had to prove it with actions to convince Meyer that he’s a dependable leader like veterans Tony Joiner and Derrick Harvey, the only two starters returning from last year’s defensive unit.
“On defense, you look at Joiner and Harvey … they’re primos,” said Meyer after Saturday’s practice. “They’re starting to separate. You can see the difference. (Brandon) Spikes I’m starting to put him in that category pretty soon because he’s starting to separate.”
Now settled into his role as the middle linebacker and a real leader of Florida’s rebuilding defense, which has the task of replacing nine starters from the national championship team, Spikes has high hopes for this unit.
“We have very high expectations,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the same thing as last year. Just fly around and have some fun.”