The group of linebackers for the Florida Gators this season won’t lack for speed. However, that isn’t all they bring to the table. They also pack a big punch, which was evident Friday as the Gators completed their sixth practice of the spring.
Defensive line: Jaye Howard has made the biggest impact at this position all spring. He has been disruptive in the backfield, making at least one key play almost every day. He used a swim move for a majority of Friday’s practice that had large success.
Omar Hunter may not be making the big plays in pass rush, but he is counted on as the nose tackle to hold his ground against the center. There haven’t been many times where he has been pushed back this spring. He isn’t grabbing headlines because that isn’t his role on the defense. However, he is clogging the middle of the line, making it hard for a run game to get going.
Neiron Ball also had a sack during practice today. He has been switching between defensive end and linebacker, but this came with his hand down at defensive end. At the snap, he snuck inside and was untouched through a clear path to the quarterback. He got praise from every coach around him, including Coach Meyer, for the move.
Linebacker: I become more impressed with this group after every practice. They can all fly, and it shows since they switch everybody around. There was a few plays Friday where Brandon Hicks was playing middle linebacker with Jon Bostic and AJ Jones playing outside. There have also been times when Jelani Jenkins played in the middle. It just goes to show that the depth may not be great, but all of these guys produce.
I’m not sure how Jenkins will be kept off the field this year. It was always assumed that Jones and Hicks would start outside with Bostic in the middle, and I’m not sure who will get the boot, but if the season started today, Jenkins would have to be in there. He has been a missile on the field this spring.
Hicks and Bostic each played well in pass coverage. Hicks covered Chris Rainey out of the slot for a while, and even jumped a quick out route for a deflection. Hicks also had a sack when he was lined up at middle linebacker.
When Brandon Spikes was the middle linebacker, the Gators were often forced to use him as a pass rusher on passing downs because he wasn’t fast enough to stay with his receivers. That won’t be necessary with Bostic. He can fly and is athletic enough to stay with tight ends or wide receivers, and he did it all day Friday.
A.J. Jones also had a key interception in the two-minute drill to end practice. It came at the goal line as time expired, but it was a nice catch that he had to jump to make.
Cornerback: Janoris Jenkins is going to have a big fall. He almost had a key interception in the two-minute drill on a pass from John Brantley to Deonte Thompson. He didn’t get much other action because he locked down opposing receivers.
Jaylen Watkins was the most consistent playmaker at the position Friday. He got beat deep once by Thompson, but it happened because John Brantley threw a pass that could not have been thrown any better. Watkins blanketed Stephen Alli during the two-minute drill, staying on his inside shoulder to deflect any deep passes to Alli near the end of practice. Alli also let a pass go through his hands that Watkins returned for a touchdown in the two-minute drill.
Safety: Will Hill was the best safety on the field Friday. During the past few years, Hill seemed to shy away from contact and almost play tentative at times. But now he is flying around the field. Whether he is playing against wide receivers or safeties, he has played well in coverage. He has also had just about one hit every practice where he will lower his head and clean a wide receiver out.
Ahmad Black didn’t have a great practice. Safeties coach Chuck Heater yelled at him during position drills early in practice for not finishing a drill, as he jogged after making a catch instead of running it out. Black also should have had an interception during the full squad scrimmage, but he mistimed his jump and it was an incompletion.
Matt Elam didn’t make any standout plays, but he did something during position drills that was impressive. A coach will throw high passes as the safety drops back, and it’s their job to go make the catch. Elam jumped up and caught the ball with one hand. He didn’t need to, and Coach Heater told him not to do it, but it was scary to see a safety do something like that.