FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
- Behind the Scenes of Florida Football: Part I, Part II & Part III (Free)
- One-on-One: Steve Spurrier talks Florida football, recruiting & SOS’ Gridiron Grille
- Ranking the June official visitors from least to most likely to sign with Florida
- Impact Analysis: Counting down the 10 Transfers
- The Inside Scoop: A behind the scenes look at Nick Evers' Florida official visit
- Florida Football player observations from the first two camp sessions
- The Inside Scoop: Trainer shares observations on nine Florida defensive linemen
- Where are they Now: Shane Matthews talks Florida Football
Former Gators’ linebacker Brandon Spikes hardly recognized the University of Florida campus when he arrived last Friday. He’d never seen the indoor practice facility in person; even the buildings around the school just looked different to him. He hadn’t been back in years, not even when the 2008 Gators National Championship winning team was honored against LSU in 2018.
Linebackers coach Christian Robinson had attempted to get him on campus for a while, but the Gator Great finally stepped foot on campus for the first time in years meeting with Florida’s linebacking corps on July 16.
He hoped to instill the passion he has for the game in the 2021 edition of this unit.
“I planned on coming by but he was just getting me over the hump,” Spikes said. “(He was) like ‘Come on you know the door’s open, we would love to have you, the guys they need to see a guy who did it the right way. You set the bar, you set the standard here. Believe it or not, you’re a part of all of that.’”
Spikes was aware of that but felt as if he didn’t know how Robinson’s players were. But C-Rob assured him that his guys could take the coaching and Spikes’ presence and words could provide motivation.
The 2021 linebacking group is one of the deepest and more experienced units on the 2021 team. He recalled the old phrase of the middle linebacker being another coach on the field. They need to know everything, get the calls in and make sure everyone’s in the right spot. That way, it’s just running around, hitting people, and having fun.
Motivating the Linebackers
Someone he really wanted to motivate was middle linebacker Ventrell Miller. Not only does he play the two-time All-American’s position, he also wears his old number. The redshirt senior is the team’s most experienced inside linebacker and his 36 games played are second to outside backer Jeremiah Moon’s 38.
“I think his role is extremely big,” Spikes said. “I told him as he goes, we go. ‘If you come out playing lights out, we'll play lights out. You come out missing tackles, making wrong calls, checks, and whatever…if you don't come out on your A-game, we're not going to play our A-game. It just comes with it.’”
And it comes with wearing number 51 on that jersey. People expect the one bearing that number to perform at a high level consistently. Spikes said Miller’s shown the signs, it’s just inconsistent.
He said the Kathleen product can make every single play on the field. He’s intelligent, has the motor and he’s loved and respected by the other linebackers. Spikes told him “Forget all of that buddy-buddy stuff” because it’s not just about coming and going, it’s about leaving a legacy or a mark by doing it the right way.
Miller will be joined on the inside by Mohamoud Diabate who made the transition from outside in 2020. Spikes noticed Diabate’s put on more weight and is more mature. The junior told Spikes that the new position has come more naturally to him than expected and the game’s slowed down for him.
Miller and Diabate could make for a dangerous pairing.
“As long as those two can communicate,” Spikes said. “The sky's the limit because they’re both explosive and they have big-play ability and I'm like ‘Ain't nothing to it but to do it at this point. If you got it in you, why not put it on and showcase it for the world? You play for the Florida Gators. People want to see it… the world is waiting. That's why you come to Florida: to make big plays.’”
Spikes also spoke about another Gator linebacker in fellow North Carolinian Ty’Ron Hopper. Hopper’s shown signs he can be a key contributor in the linebacker rotation. It’s just a matter of him seeing the field more often.
Like Diabate and Miller, Spikes thinks Hopper can go as far as he wants to as well.
If he can lock in for the next 12 months, really lock-in and is all about football and school…I think he could be a first-day guy,” Spikes said.
But for Spikes, that’s essentially saying he’s got potential, and potential to him is someone who hasn’t done a whole lot yet. That’s how his coaches defined it when he played too.
“Let's kind of put it on tape especially if everybody feels that way and they’re talking high of you,” he said. “It's time to go. Let's see. I think he understands that too, he's putting in the work obviously you see his body's changed. And I think… he will be a guy that corps will definitely, definitely lean on. And I know 51 is going to bring him along. He put his arm around him this offseason.”
Passion and Accountability
While he hasn’t been to campus, Spikes still followed the Gators over the last few years. He’s traveled to a few away games and communicated with players. He especially paid attention last season and the adventure that was Florida’s defense.
“I was like, ‘You guys did all of that and got to the SEC Championship. Giving it up 500-plus yards every Saturday. I watched this with my own two eyes and you still got to the show.’”
Albeit the season average was 370, there were several 500-yard allowances in 2020.
Spikes knows things like that don’t just happen all of the time. It comes down to passion and accountability to be great. Players need to lock in because if one guy is out of the loop, then it’s a “ticking time bomb.” You’re just waiting for something to pop. But, in his eyes, last year’s defensive lapses came from effort. Things like effort and celebrating as a unit are those little things that are so important.
He said those are things the fans won’t see. Or more invested fans will notice. They’ll appreciate a team that runs hard, trying to beat each other to the ball, and showcase that “relentless effort” because they saw it before.
“You come to Florida, you’re coming to play great defense that’s one thing you got to have,” he said. “We don’t know what else is going on but we're going to play great defense. We're going to have a great backend; we're going to have a great linebacking corps and our defensive line is going to be great. That's how we got to get it back and we're going win a lot of games like that.”
A big piece of advice he gave to the linebackers was to put in more effort getting to know each other especially outside of the football facility. Spikes emphasized getting closer than close and spending extra time outside of team activities. Better chemistry can lead to better communication and even allow players to play faster because they’re guessing less about what the other guys are doing.
He knows if this unit can play at an elite level with elite camaraderie, it will spread throughout the defense and eventually the entire team.
Spikes wants to get back to how it was when he played. And they have more ability than him, it’s just about the will to do it with the mindset to want to be disruptive.
“This is my mindset when I’m buckling up my helmet: ‘How can I ruin their day?’” Spikes said. “And if you don't feel like that as a Mike backer or your teammate or your brother, you need to be telling them the same thing what you're thinking like ‘How can we ruin a whole gameplan and we’re sitting over here by halftime (or) third quarter and we’re wondering what we're doing tonight for fun.’”
Support for the Coaching Staff
Spikes relayed that he has great confidence in Robinson as well. Spikes mentioned how blessed he was to have the coaches and coordinators he did when he was at Florida.
“You guys got something good here,” Spikes told the linebackers. “He knows the game and he loves you guys. Like he really cares about you and because he was them…so he probably sees himself through them.”
And of course, he believes in the head man Dan Mullen. After a year where the team had multiple underachieving moments with a prolific offense fans have clamored for, some have doubted if Mullen can get it done at Florida.
Spikes isn’t one of them. He thinks Mullen has Florida in the right direction. He’s just happy to see him in the building too.
“(If) we can just win these games and the defense can handle its business, I think we'll be right where we've always been or where we were back in the glory days,” he said.
And those glory days were when Spikes and the rest of the first-team defense were taking their tape off in the middle of the LSU game in 2008.