September 3 is right around the corner, which means Florida Gators football season is in sight. The Gators will soon be taking newly named, Steve Spurrier-Florida Field for the first time.
As we impatiently await the arrival of football season, Gator Country will grade all of Florida’s position groups to get a better idea of where each group stands coming into the 2016 season.
So far we’ve hit on the secondary and defensive line, this time we will take a look at the linebackers.
When Alex Anzalone went down with a shoulder injury in the second game of the 2015 season, depth at linebacker became extremely thin in a hurry for the Gators. Anzalone is back this season, hopefully for the long run, but arguably the heart and soul of Florida’s defense is not. With two-year starter Antonio Morrison’s career in the rearview, the Gators will have to move on and find a new leader this season.
POSITION GROUP GRADE: B
This group is a tough one, because Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis bring so much talent to the table, but there is next to no proven depth behind those two. Depth at linebacker was a huge challenge for the Gators last season, and could be a challenge again if some young guys do not step up. Until there is more proven depth behind Anzalone and Davis, my grade for them is a B.
Anzalone and Davis have the potential to be the best linebacker duo in the SEC before the season is finished, but the importance of both of them staying healthy throughout the entirety of the season cannot be stressed enough. Anzalone has struggled with injuries since he arrived in Gainesville and Randy Shannon and Geoff Collins know they cannot afford to lose him again this year. He has made a strong comeback from his shoulder injury that held him out for almost the entire 2015 season, but the coaches are still taking precautionary measures with him to help insure he does not re-injure himself. Collins raves about both Anzalone and Davis’ leadership and character. Both have been working with the younger guys throughout the offseason and making everyone around them better.
Davis had his breakout season last year as he recorded 98 total tackles, which was the second highest on the team, only behind Antonio Morrison. Eleven of his 98 tackles were for a loss. Davis’ return for his senior season is huge for the Gators. He is athletic, agile, and speedy, with a non-stop motor. Davis is aggressive and will absolutely lay opposing players out and even slap a few balls down with his freaky anticipation. He is already predicted to possibly be the top linebacker prospect in next years’ NFL Draft with a great 2016 season.
Freshman David Reese had a good spring and is expected to be the next man up behind Anzalone and Davis. The staff did everything they could in the offseason to prepare him to take on a big role this fall. Reese is a true downhill run stopping middle linebacker who will bring great toughness to the position for the Gators. He is already having a great fall camp and should see some significant playing time early in his career.
Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson really came into his own this spring at linebacker after making the transition from safety. Johnson had an interception, a quarterback hurry, and led the team with eight total tackles in the Orange and Blue Debut. At 6-1, 228, Johnson has great size and speed, while his past experience at safety gives him great coverage skills. He is another guy who is expected to be a key player this season.
Redshirt junior Matt Rolin could make an impact this season if he can stay healthy, but after already undergoing two ACL surgeries in his time at Florida, that is a big ‘if’. Rolin got some playing time for the first time in his career in the final games of the 2015 season. He held his own in every game and put on a performance in the SEC Championship game, notching eight total tackles. Rolin has the potential to have a good season for the Gators, but his health is a huge concern.
Redshirt freshman Rayshad Jackson will probably fit into the mix somewhere behind these guys to add a little bit more depth. Jackson was committed to Shannon when he was at Arkansas and he followed him when he came to Florida. Jackson has been referred to as Shannon’s project, so this season will give a glimpse of how the project is coming along.
Senior Daniel McMillian will likely not have as big of a role for the Gators at linebacker this year as he did last year, there is just more young talent the Florida coaches are leaning on heading into the season. McElwain did say earlier this week that McMillian has been working at nickelback some in fall camp, so he could possibly see some playing time there as well as continue to be a key player on special teams.
Jeremiah Moon and Vosean Joseph did not enroll until summer, so they still have some catching up to do. Moon’s biggest thing is adding some weight, which he has already done by adding 12 pounds since he arrived on campus. Joseph has great instincts and coverage skills and seems more physically prepared to play than Moon, but will likely be a special teams guy for the time being if he avoids a redshirt. Both could possibly be redshirt candidates depending on how they develop in fall camp.
Randy Shannon has a lot of work to do in developing more young talent behind the clear-cut starters, Anzalone and Davis. Depending on how much those guys develop throughout camp and the season, Florida could be in great shape at linebacker or it could be a rough season at the position. Injuries depleted the Gators’ linebacker corps last year, so that is another thing this group cannot afford. Barring injury, Florida’s linebackers have the potential to have an outstanding season and improve upon their fifth ranked SEC rush defense from a year ago.
Coming up next, running backs.