FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
As the Florida Gators players prepare for the fall, we look back over the spring practices and Orange and Blue Game with former players as each recaps what he saw from his respective positional unit and what he expects from them this fall in our annual F-Club series.
While fans mostly remember the Steve Spurrier era for its dynamic quarterback play and explosive offenses, during that period the Gators also churned out some outstanding linebackers, such as James Bates, Mike Peterson, Dwayne Thomas, Jevon Kearse and Johnny Rutledge.
Rutledge, from Belle Glade, Florida, arrived at UF in 1995. Over his four years, he started 33 regular-season games, made 307 tackles and 37.5 tackles-for-loss and forced six fumbles. He was named Second Team All-SEC in 1997 and First Team in 1998. He started in the 1997 Sugar Bowl against Florida State and helped the Gators win their first national championship.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted Rutledge in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft. He appeared in 46 games over five seasons for the Cardinals and Denver Broncos.
Flash forward 20 years, and Florida’s linebacking corps faces plenty of questions. Senior David Reese is back to man the middle, but he struggles in coverage. The other probable starter, Amari Burney, is an athletic freak, but he’s in his first year at the position. The early departure of Vosean Joseph to the NFL, a couple of transfers and the failure of 2019 signee Diwun Black to qualify academically have left the Gators with almost zero proven depth.
Will Burney live up to his seemingly limitless potential? Will Reese’s toughness and leadership outweigh any negatives he brings with his limitations in coverage? What happens if someone gets hurt? Can the Gators finally cover athletic tight ends?
To assess the state of Florida’s linebackers, Inside the Gators talked with Rutledge about Burney’s transition from safety to linebacker, why Reese is a valuable member of the Gators’ defense despite his limitations, how the position has evolved since he played and more.
What do you like about David Reese?
“He is a sure-tackler, plays the run well. He’s a leader. Also think he’s going to have a big year. I’m expecting big things out of David Reese.”
In the three games he missed last season due to injury, the defense looked completely different and a little lost. What about him makes him so valuable to the defense?
“His presence, first and foremost. Everything looked different when he didn’t play. So, leadership, presence and then, I mean, just guys knowing that he’s there helps them a lot. You like to be able to play more free. He’s going to be an awesome piece for us.”
What makes him the sure-tackler that he is?
“He’s a classic thumper. He reminds me so much of Dexter Daniels, the guy I played with for one year. Was a leader, he was a thumper, he was a sure-tackler. He wasn’t the fastest, but he was always in the right place at the right time.”
Is Reese sort of a throwback linebacker? He’s not one of the modern-style linebackers that are all about speed and coverage.
“He definitely has the game to play on Sundays. College ball is more spread, get the athletes, so, that kind of makes him look like he’s a throwback guy. But, he’s definitely a guy that could’ve played with us [in the ‘90s]. He’s a thumper, a leader. Just, the way teams are playing nowadays really doesn’t fit his game.”
How impressive is it that he’s as good as he is despite not being the biggest or fastest linebacker?
“That comes from film study, being ready to play. I always tell people that you don’t have to be the fastest guy, but just be the smartest guy on the field. To me, I think David Reese is that.”
How concerned are you about him being a liability in coverage? It seemed like he got beat a couple of times last year.
“I mean, it’s going to happen to the best of players. But, I feel that this staff will just put him in the places to – I mean, for his strengths. You can always cover up that stuff, so I think this staff will just play him right. He should be fine.”
How excited are you about Amari Burney playing linebacker now?
“He’s a guy that was moved into that spot. Athletic guy. Hopefully, he can pick it up fast ‘cause it takes a lot to go from outside to the middle-type spots. But, as long as he’s covered up, able to run and hit, I think he’ll be fine.”
How big of a playmaker do you think he can be?
“Only time will tell. To me, he has that [Mike] Peterson-type build. Sideline-to-sideline guy. So, for him, it’s all about just learning the scheme, getting comfortable playing that spot. From there, hopefully he just goes out and plays well.”
What do you think are going to be some of the hardest parts of transitioning from safety to linebacker?
“Just the physicality of it, taking on linemen, taking on fullbacks every play. It’s going to be the biggest thing for him is just taking on those guys. SEC, every Saturday’s going to be physical. It’s just that.”
With Vosean Joseph going pro and a couple of transfers this offseason, how concerned are you about the depth behind Reese and Burney?
“Depth is going to be the thing. So, hopefully, [Ventrell] Miller and [James] Houston can just step up and fill those roles if a guy goes down. Both those guys have played a lot. Hopefully, we’ll be good to those babies, [so the] babies can grow up.”
What do you think of Miller and Houston?
“One of those two are going to have to step up and play at a starter-type pace. Either one can play, both can run. One guy’s going to have to take that next step. I don’t know who, but one of them has to.”
The Gators seemed to struggle to cover some of the more athletic tight ends in the conference last year. Do you think Burney moving to linebacker could be the solution to that problem?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s going to help. Having a guy that played safety moving to ‘backer from there, defensively gives you so many options in coverages and blitz packages. It’s going to help.”
What do you think are some of the biggest differences in the position between now and when you played? Is it just the speed and spread offenses?
“I wouldn’t say it’s the speed because everybody still runs power, everybody still runs counter, everybody still runs zone. That won’t change. But, nowadays, teams no-huddle, more spread, emptying out the box. I mean, right now, it’s more six-in-the-box, seven-in-the-box-type games versus, when I played, we had more eight-in-the-box-type games. It’s not the speed of the game. They’re just spreading out defenses.”
Is there a particular type of offense that you think this defense might struggle against?
“Any team that wants to line up and just play that physical style of game. Defensive line, the depth is there. But, at ‘backer, got to have that depth just constantly take that physical pounding. So, I wouldn’t want to see us play a more physical, downhill-type team early.”
What’s the biggest adjustment for a linebacker going from high school to the college game?
“Speed of the game, physicality of the players and, the thing is, everybody’s good now. High school, you’re the man. Most of those guys, they won’t even make it to play on the next level. Everybody’s good in college. So, for me, that was the biggest thing.”
What are your thoughts on Christian Robinson as linebackers coach?
“He’s doing an awesome job. He’s a young guy that the kids love. So, I’m expecting big things from him as well.”
What do you like about Todd Grantham’s defense?
“Blitzing, fast, physical. It allows guys to go without sitting and reading plays, so I would’ve loved to have played in that style.”
What do you like about Dan Mullen as a head coach?
“He relates to the guys, and he’s a former coach there that knows the actual DNA of the program, knows how to win and he’s bringing that back. I can see it.”
What do you think are going to be some of the biggest keys to the season?
“With any team, it’s going to be health. If you can stay healthy, that helps. And, we can’t lose any guys. We don’t have that depth there yet to be able to lose a guy and keep going. It’s coming but not yet. So, staying healthy’s going to be the key.”
What are your expectations for what they could accomplish this season? Can they beat Georgia?
“They better beat Georgia. I don’t see why we can’t. Last year, there was a couple plays here and there that could’ve turned the game. So, I’m not afraid of Georgia; they’re not afraid of Georgia. So, line up and play.”
Stay tuned to Inside the Gators for the remaining F-Club series as we talk to more former players about their respective units heading into fall camp.
Inside the Gators F-Club Positional Breakdown series isn't associated with the official University of Florida F-Club