Florida Football 3-2-1: Linebackers Spring Preview

Mar 10, 2020 | 0 comments

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With spring practices only a week away, it’s time to start previewing what the 2020 Gators might look like position-by-position.

Next up are the linebackers. Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction about the group entering the spring.

Three Observations

1. This position is the Gators’ biggest unknown this offseason. They return six players at the position, and none of them have proven much in their careers. James Houston and Ventrell Miller will probably start the spring with the ones as the elder statesmen of the group, but Amari Burney is too athletic and versatile to waste away on the bench again and Ty’Ron Hopper was rated a top-100 prospect in 2019. Lacedrick Brunson received more playing time toward the end of last season and drew praise from his teammates and coaches. After four years of David Reese providing a consistent, calming voice in the middle, the Gators face a rebuild at the position.

2. They should be able to mix and match more effectively this season. Reese was a one-trick pony; he was terrific against the run but struggled when asked to drop into coverage. But, he was so invaluable as a leader that the Gators had to play him and put up with a few third-down conversions per game. Now, they should have more flexibility. They can still play a run-stuffing package with Houston and Brunson. Or they can put Burney and Hopper on the field together in passing situations because of their speed. Expect to see several combinations this spring as they look for the ideal lineups.

3. Miller could make a huge jump this spring. He finished second on the team with 55 tackles last season and contributed three sacks despite missing a game with an injury and playing beside a tackling machine in Reese. He might be Florida’s best combination of speed and tackling ability. He’ll open the spring as the incumbent starter at the ‘Money’ linebacker spot, and it would be a mild surprise if he doesn’t end the spring as the starter as well. There are no known commodities in the linebacker corps, but Miller is the closest thing to one.

Two Questions

1. How do they fill Reese’s leadership void? He asserted himself as a team leader late in his freshman year and never looked back. He knew the defense like the back of his hand and helped make sure everybody was on the same page. When he missed the first three games of the 2018 season with an injury, the results were ugly. He might not seem like much of a loss from a talent perspective, but he was a valuable member of this team the past four years. That cannot be replaced easily.

2. Will Burney bounce back? He was hyped up last off-season as a possible burgeoning star but missed five games with an injury and never found his groove. He has all of the skills you could want in a linebacker, and he showed what he is capable of during a two-week stretch in 2019. He recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass against Tennessee, then followed it up with eight tackles against Towson. He’s healthy now, and he’ll look to prove himself this spring. The Gators could really use a consistent season from him.

One Prediction

1. Miller will claim the outside linebacker spot by the end of the spring, but the battle to replace Reese in the middle will carry over to the fall. As the most accomplished player in an inexperienced linebacker corps, Miller just needs to avoid making major mistakes to reclaim his starting job. Houston will get the first crack in the middle, but Brunson and Hopper will also factor in. Houston and Brunson aren’t as fast as you’d like a linebacker to be, but Hopper isn’t big enough to take on SEC linemen for an entire season. This battle will end in a dead heat this spring and become one of the biggest storylines entering the fall.

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