The University of Florida has had their share of legendary linebackers; Wilber Marshall, Alonzo Johnson, Jevon Kearse, Mike Peterson, Brandon Spikes, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins to name a few.
Last season, the linebackers took a lot of heat for a perceived drop in play. Watching from home it seemed like there were missed tackles, missed assignments and a big drop-off in production from a year previous.
There was some drop-off, there’s going to be when you lose players like Bostic and Jenkins, but it wasn’t all on the linebackers. After Dominique Easley went down with an injury, the defensive line struggled keeping their assignments engaged, allowing offensive linemen to fire into the second level untouched. It’s hard for a linebacker to take on 300-pound offensive linemen who have a full head of steam.
This season the orange and blue return most of their linebacker unit as well as add some new faces that missed last season due to injury or redshirts. Lets jump into the depth chart at linebacker and see what the Gators are working with.
SAM: Neiron Ball (R-Sr.), Matt Rolin (R-Fr.)
Neiron Ball enters his final season in Gainesville and is poised to start at strongside linebacker. Ball will play more snaps this season with Ronald Powell off playing in the NFL and he’s the second most veteran linebacker Florida has. Will Muschamp will count on his leadership ability in 2014.
Matt Rolin suffered an ACL tear just weeks after getting cleared from the same injury he sustained in high school. Rolin was on track to earn significant playing time as a freshman and if he can stay healthy should earn a lot of playing time this season.
He’s a strong, fast linebacker, perfect for the position. Rolin is a solid, wrap-up tackler who pursues the ball carrier relentlessly. He should get a lot of work on special teams early on and earn more snaps on defense as the season continues.
MIKE: Jarrad Davis (So.), Mike Taylor (Sr.)
Jarrad Davis burst on to the scene last season with a stellar freshman campaign. He played in every game as a freshman, earned one start and was named a captain before games against Missouri and South Carolina.
Davis finished the season with 28 tackles, two for a loss, a punt block and a forced fumble. Those numbers will increase drastically this season as he moves into a starting role full-time.
Mike Taylor is the most senior of the linebackers and the most experienced of the bunch. He spent time behind Morrison and Davis in the spring but as a veteran leader on the team he didn’t seem to mind his role of coming in off of the bench. Florida needs players like Neiron Ball and Taylor to set examples for a very young group of linebackers.
WILL: Antonio Morrison (Jr.), Daniel McMillian (So.)
Antonio Morrison couldn’t produce the encore Gator fans expected following a fantastic freshman campaign. His off the field issues prior to last season were well documented here but Morrison has kept his nose clean this offseason and is well-respected in the locker room.
Florida’s Will and Mike linebacker positions are mirror images of each other; with slightly more responsibility in coverage at Will.
I could see Morrison and Davis splitting reps at both positions.
Daniel McMillian played in nine games as a freshman, recording two tackles on special teams. The biggest thing McMillian struggled with last season was picking up Florida’s complex defensive schemes. With a full year in the system, McMillian has shown great strides in his knowledge of the playbook and looked much faster and more fluid on the field in the spring because of it.
The Rest: Alex Anzalone (So.), Jeremi Powell (R-So.)
Anzalone enrolled early as a freshman in 2013 but missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. He continued battling through injuries throughout the season but was able to appear in 10 games, recording two unassisted tackles.
He’s a big, athletic player like Rolin, who I can really see playing all three linebacker spots eventually but right now he’s better suited to play middle or weakside.
Jeremi Powell suffered a torn ACL last season so his health is a big question coming into this year. Powell will play weakside linebacker when he returns.