Having reviewed the offensive skill players and the linemen in the Florida class of 2013, it is time to look at the linebackers and defensive backs, as well as the sole special teams player in this class. Together they make the loudest statement yet about Coach Will Muschamp’s belief that the SEC is a line of scrimmage league, and he is determined to own that line of scrimmage.
Part III: Linebackers & Secondary
P Johnny Townsend
This is one of many Gators to play in the U.S. Army All-American game, but not one to whom Florida fans paid much attention during the game, since nobody had any notion he was interested in the Gators. As a senior, he averaged 44.6 yards per punt, won the Nick Saban Punting Competition, won the Chas Henry All-American Kicking Camp Punting Competition and was the recipient of the Felix “Doc” Blanchard Award, so the kid has a great pedigree. He was also an Eagle Scout, a member of the National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society, was his high school’s senior Homecoming King and both of his parents are University of Florida graduates…so how is it that nobody knew about this kid and his interest in Florida? Well, committing to Ohio State and posing for a picture with Buckeye and former Gators coach Urban Meyer all the way back in June will do that. At that point, Florida had only offered Johnny a spot as a preferred walk-on. But Florida kept their eye on him and when it became evident that Florida would have a spot for him, Muschamp called Johnny on Monday to offer him a full scholarship. But so did Nick Saban, who had also offered Townsend a preferred walk-on opportunity over the summer. Someone had learned of Alabama’s offer and left a Bama hat on the table for him at his announcement ceremony on National Signing Day, but he was still not ready to make his choice. At some time the next day, he decided to be a Gator. While his resume tells you he is a very good punter, what I like most is that he improved his punting average by two full yards from his junior to senior years, from 42 to 44. With the benefit of college coaching, he should be able to improve on that at UF as well.
LB Alex Anzalone
Alex is a two-way player, being an excellent running back who could probably go on to start in the backfield at halfback or fullback for most BCS conference teams. This helps him as a linebacker in terms of anticipation in stopping the run game. He is one of many new Gators in this class who have played opposing positions on both sides of the line, which should enhance their understanding of their foe every Saturday at Florida. His athleticism reminds me of Erin Kinney or for the younger Gators, Aaron Hernandez. Mostly because he looks almost too big and thick to have the speed, agility and fluid running ability that he has, with or without the ball. Given his versatility, I could see him being used as a two-way player at Florida, getting work on offense like Aaron Hernandez is used by the New England Patriots, as a tight end, H-back or even goal line wide receiver — although I do not believe Florida will need to patch any shortfall in receiving talent anymore.
LB Jarrad Davis
Jarrad is one of the growing number of big “closing” success stories for Muschamp. He flipped him from his commitment to Auburn and then kept him from being sucked into the Ole Miss vortex that Hugh Freeze managed to crack open this year. This is a real high character guy, with great work habits and all the intangibles you look for in a team cornerstone on and off the field. He will bring leadership to the heart of the defense like a linebacker should. He brings a 3.8 GPA to Gainesville and a weight room fanaticism that Jeff Dillman is going to love. When coaches and family talk about this kid, they always lead with his integrity, maturity and leadership. And the cherry on top is that he is a great linebacker. He has excellent lateral speed and is fast enough to make an impact on the kick coverage units. He is a sure tackler in the open field and he hits a ton, just the way you want a linebacker to hit.
LB Matt Rolin
Gators fans are going to love Matt Rolin. Everyone loves when The Swamp explodes after a huge hit by a Florida defender, and Matt is the hardest hitter in this class. Some of his hits just drop your jaw — it is clear that he really likes to lay the lick. But there is much to like about this kid, because he is more than just a swinger of lumber. Folks may have thought he was a running back or quarterback in high school because he lived in the backfield. He is very good reading the play and picking the right gap for penetration – and getting there quickly. With the Gators scheme that often calls for the defensive line to hold the line of scrimmage and let a linebacker or defensive back penetrate to make plays in the backfield, Rolin is a custom fit for the orange and blue. He has good speed and showed good hands when he played offense, so we should be seeing far fewer potential interceptions being dropped by Gators linebackers in the near future.
LB Daniel McMillian
Muschamp must love this kid because he is such an intense player on the field. He pops on film more than any other player in this class and as much as any in the country. It is a testament to what a rare class this one is on signing day that McMillian is not the undisputed gem of the class. But he is one of the highest value gems, to be sure. He is very active from the linebacker spot, always around the ball and making plays. He has long arms to bat passes and defend in coverage in the passing game. Daniel could have a Brandon Spikes kind impact in leading by example while also being an emotional spark plug on the field. He hits a ton and is going to be a terror for quarterbacks, whether rushing from the edge or shooting a gap. He is the kind of linebacker who can frustrate a running back and take him out of the game because he is so good at stuffing the inside game and containing the outside game (again think of Spikes and his domination of Knowshon Moreno in the 2008 Georgia game).
S Marcell Harris
The son of a very good Spurrier-era safety Mike “Mud” Harris, Marcell made things interesting by holding out until the end of November to commit, and even did a bag, hat and T-shirt shell game and juggling act at his commitment ceremony between Texas, FSU, South Carolina and Florida, but Marcell looks a lot like his dad in pads, except that he is a thicker individual and has a step more speed. It is that speed that will keep him at safety, since he has the frame and build to play linebacker. He reads the quarterback well and finds the ball in the air, as you like a safety to do. Another big asset to an SEC safety, he is a really good open field tackler; he has obviously been trained very well in the family. He is not going to make the highlight reel hits every week, because this hard hitter more often focuses on making the sound tackle over hitting someone at the speed of sound, but he’s a guy that doesn’t let anyone get by. He is also a soft-spoken teammate but a consummate hard worker that his high school coaches report has an infectious impact on his teammates, He had an MCL injury that required surgery and then corrective arthroscopy during the 2012 season, but could probably have played at the end of the year, so it should not be an issue entering his Gators career.
S Keanu Neal
Although he has not had a lot of work since the Matrix trilogy, Keanu looks like he will be making a lot of hits in his future after he arrives in Gainesville. Yes, this is yet another really hard hitter in this class as well as another possible return guy. And if Florida were not bringing in the best wide receiver class in the country this year, they could do a lot worse than putting Neal out wide on offense. Unlike Marcell Harris, Keanu put all drama to rest very early, topping off the Gators’ six-commitment Junior Day recruiting landslide with a pledge to Muschamp. Being a very humble and respectful kid, it is clear when you talk to him that he has no use for drama – when he was sure where he wanted to go, that was it. Keanu has good instincts and another pigskin bloodhound with a nose for the ball when it is in the air. Like Harris, Neal has the body to play outside linebacker as well, and may ultimately wind up there, though he has made no bones about his goal of starting at free safety for the Gators. Wherever he lands on the field, he should be an impact player before leaving. Another UnderArmour game selection this past year, where he challenged another Gator safety for the title of biggest player-recruiter in this class, Keanu was singled out for praise by a few coaches during that practice week while facing some of the best offensive talent in the nation. And that should come as no surprise for a kid who was invited to The Opening, the IMG Madden 7-on-7 tournament, the IMG 7-on-7 National Championship, the 2012 Nike Football SPARQ Combine, the 2012 U.S. Army National Combine, the 2012 UnderArmour Combine and of course Florida’s own Friday Night Lights. Like the Beach Boys, he gets around; and like the Beach Boys, he is a hit machine.
S Nick Washington
Having competed in The Opening, the Rivals/VTO Sports Florida Elite 100, IMG Madden 7-on-7 National Championship, the Elite Scouting Combine, Friday Night Lights and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Nick also made many rounds against the top competition in the nation. Another of the “Spring Six,” as the half dozen Florida Junior Day commitments have been called…by nobody until now…Washington’s stock in the minds of Gator fans and recruiting services alike has been severely undervalued in my opinion because he was not part of the year-long recruiting carnival. Nick is as good a safety prospect as any player in the country. He is an advanced player in terms of being able to recognize formations and anticipate the action, and he is a highly disciplined player. He has been a starter since the eighth grade because he is a good tackler, a decent cover guy, and a darn good running back and cornerback. If that is not enough, he will try out for the Gators baseball team as well. He has nice speed and is much longer than you would think at 6-foot-1. Having played all over the field in high school, being able to concentrate on one position at Florida should only enhance his impact that much more — although the staff intends to cross train him at cornerback at least to start off his UF career. Nick’s choice to be a Gator was a family affair, citing the family atmosphere at UF, as well as a great relationship with T-Rob, Florida defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson. Guss Scott, a former standout Gators safety whose game-turning 47-yard pick-six against Georgia’s D.J. Shockley is part of Florida legend, is an assistant at Trinity and calls one of the smartest players he has ever coached.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Every year, Florida’s Friday Night Lights is not only the highlight of the offseason — more so that even the Orange and Blue spring game — but one of the most anticipated and important college summer camps in the country. But last year Vernon gave the FNL weekend an extra boost of energy and buzz when he committed to Florida on the eve of the big event. Ironically he could not attend the camp the next day after visiting that Thursday, because he had committed to play in the Gridiron Kings 7-on-7 tournament down the road in Lake Buena Vista, but the momentum boost of bringing perhaps the best player in the country into the Gator fold gave the FNL attendees something extra to think about and feed from. Vernon is probably the jewel of the class, and it says a lot about the class that this is not a clear distinction. He may also be the best athlete of one of the most athletic classes in the country. An ace tackler, he has great closing speed although he is rarely beat, and he is simply a big time play maker, as evidenced when he won the UnderArmour all-star game MVP by a country mile. He has great cover skills, in a prototypical run support corner and an amazing open field tackler. It is easy to lapse into hyperbole when talking about Vernon, but then again it really is not hyperbole when it is factually true. And perhaps the biggest Hargreaves highlight of the Under Armour game was his interviews. He is not only a very good natured, very respectful young man; he is a clear student of the game and has a very grounded perspective and understanding of the role and responsibilities of a star player on and off the field. He is the whole package. He is VH3.
Well there you have my breakdown and thoughts on the Florida Gators’ 2013 signing class, from soup to nuts. On paper, it is one of the top three classes in the county. In my estimation, it is the best class in the nation, and one that addressed every one of the Gators’ needs with almost everyone the staff wanted — which is a rarity even for the elite programs. In Part IV of this series I will look at those players that the coaches wanted to be part of this class who they were not able to sign, and lend some context to how significant or insignificant each “miss” was. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.