When it comes to replacing departed starters from last year’s Florida team, most cases were backups stepping directly into place. Stone Forsythe was the first offensive tackle off the bench last year, and now he will start at left tackle. The same goes among the offensive guards with Brett Heggie, who will start next to Forsythe. Jonathan Greenard is a special case coming in as a grad transfer at Buck, but that was his position at Louisville and he’s been splitting fall camp snaps there with last year’s top backup Jeremiah Moon.
The biggest change was reserve defensive back Amari Burney taking over Vosean Joseph’s old linebacker spot.
Burney backed up Chauncey Gardner-Johnson at star in 2018, so he already was in a role that wasn’t a pure pass coverage job. Still, it’s not common to see players jump a level in the defense, especially when backups Ventrell Miller and especially James Houston saw increasing amounts of playing time as the year went along.
Fortunately for people outside the program who can’t watch every practice, we’ve already gotten some glimpses of Burney working at linebacker. He played a number of snaps there in the Peach Bowl against Michigan, recording a pass breakup and a sack. Here is what we can see from that action, especially since there wasn’t much to learn from the spring game with the defense hamstrung by tight rules on what it could and couldn’t do.
Not surprisingly, Burney was most often deployed at linebacker on third downs in passing situations. Given his history as a DB, pass coverage is one of his best traits as a player.
It was a lighter kind of package, as he was paired up with Joseph rather than David Reese II. He’s going to be working next to Reese this year, but he didn’t appear with him in Atlanta.
Florida essentially went without a true middle linebacker on these plays, opting to go with the speedier duo of Joseph and Burney for pass defense purposes. Todd Grantham naturally called some blitzes from this set, but only once did he send both linebackers after the passer at the same time. Burney did patrol the center area on some plays, and other times the Buck would drop to the middle to function as something like a middle linebacker. The point, I believe, was to give Michigan some looks that the Gators hadn’t shown on tape before, and given the high general effectiveness of these plays, I’d say it worked.
The one exception to the third down rule came on Michigan’s final drive of the first half. The Wolverines were attempting a hurry up drive to steal some points before time ran out, and they’d end up getting close enough to miss a field goal. Once they crossed the 50-yard-line and threatened to get to scoring position, Grantham went with the Burney package to try to prevent easy gains. As the clock forced many of these snaps to be throws, it reinforced Burney’s usage on passing downs.
I made a cutup with three plays by Burney at the linebacker spot in the bowl.
In the first play, Joseph heads back into coverage to replace a blitzing Gardner-Johnson. Burney drops into coverage in the middle of the field to either cover someone from the backfield sneaking out or just spy on the quarterback. He ends up covering the tight end, and he would’ve gotten the third down stop had Shea Patterson had the time to find his safety valve before pressure got to him.
On the second play, Michigan sends a tight end on a vertical route right at Burney in order to clear up space for a five-yard cross. Burney doesn’t bite, passing the tight end off to the safety behind him. As a result, he’s in position to break up the short pass even as it’s thrown ahead of the receiver and away from the spot where he started before the snap.
The third play is Burney’s sack. Grantham sends six against six Wolverine blockers, but Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite, and Burney all load up on the offense’s left edge. The left tackle mostly blocks Zuniga, but he also looks like he wants to pass Zuniga off to the left guard so that he can get a hand on Polite. Polite is only faking a rush from the left, as he then goes over to the right side to plug the hole Patterson escaped through on the first of these plays.
Burney is left uncovered, and he blitzes untouched to get his first collegiate sack. He is fast, but he doesn’t get out of control against the mobile Patterson and brings him down for a loss.
Overall, Burney looked a bit hesitant as a linebacker in the Peach Bowl. It’s understandable, since I would bet he didn’t get much if any practice time there before bowl preparations. It’s a reasonable assumption that through the FSU game, he was full-time backup at star in case anything happened to Gardner-Johnson. And even with him still finding his way, he still got that pass breakup and sack.
By the time the spring game rolled around, he was looking more decisive. Of course, the defense was only allowed to play four coverages, so that made it easy.
Burney still didn’t yet look comfortable engaging with offensive linemen, though. He’d fight through a block on one play and then allow a lineman to push him around a couple plays later. Again, some of that may be because it was a spring game; the top goal in such contests is to make it out with no injuries. Some could be that defensive backs don’t tend to deal with linemen except on edge blitzes, and he still was new at the whole linebacker thing.
Between his pass coverage and blitzes against Michigan and good run fits in the spring game, it’s safe to say that Burney is on his way to being the linebacker that UF needs. I do wonder, however, if he will play something of a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role and see himself substituted out for a guy like Houston when opponents such as Auburn, LSU, Vandy, and Georgia beef up for their run games. We may get a good look at that kind of rotation in the opener against Miami (FL), since it has a proven running back and question marks at quarterback.
Regardless, Burney brings a pass coverage ability that the Gators haven’t had at linebacker in years along with top end athleticism. We haven’t seen a lot of him at the position just yet, but what we have seen is encouraging.