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Notebook: Moon ready for his last ride, Miller stepping up in the middle

September 16, 2020
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Early in the 2018 season, linebacker Ventrell Miller went into first-year position coach Christian Robinson’s office for a chat. Robinson could tell right away that something was bothering Miller.

“He goes on to tell me, ‘Coach, I just want an opportunity. I want to be able to play,’” Robinson said. “I’m sitting there and thinking back to my days of playing. As a coach, you’ve got to tell him what they need to hear, but you also want to give them hope.

“I said, ‘Ventrell, you have the ability to play here. It’s going to be all these other things that we’ve got to get you on, the confidence, how to fit blocks, how to cover certain people.’”

Flash forward to August 2019, and Miller started at outside linebacker in the season-opener against Miami. He recorded two sacks and made a terrific play in coverage late in the game to help seal the win.

“I remember right before that, we had a timeout, and he’s like, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I can go,’” Robinson said. “And I said, ‘This is what you wanted to do. This is where you wanted to be. When the game’s on the line, your belly’s burning, you want to be in these moments.’”

As the Gators get set to open their 2020 season on Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Miller doesn’t just want to be in those moments; the Gators need him to step up. David Reese’s 322 career tackles and strong veteran leadership are gone, and Miller has been tasked with replacing him in the middle of the defense.

So far, so good. Miller shed about 15 pounds this offseason, which has resulted in better speed and quickness that has allowed him to keep up with All-SEC tight end Kyle Pitts in practice, Robinson said.

Miller is a better athlete than Reese and should bring more versatility to the middle linebacker spot with his abilities to cover and blitz.

Off the field, he has stepped up as one of the team’s vocal leaders and is on the leadership committee.

“Ventrell Miller’s been just great,” Robinson said. “I’ve [told] anybody and everybody that would listen that he’s done everything we’ve told him to do and had a great attitude.

“To see him grow from a guy that needs the reps to get the confidence to go execute to a guy that can withstand being in the game when the game’s on the line to a guy that’s a leader in the locker room and holding guys accountable, that is exactly what this program is about.”

Moon’s last ride

Jeremiah Moon has entered the last three seasons with fans and media expecting a breakout season from him.

It’s hard to blame them. He has all the measurables you look for in an edge rusher. He’s long (6-foot-6), strong (228 pounds) and fast.

Still, each of his three seasons as a major contributor have pretty much gone the same way. He played poorly enough that you felt like he left a lot to be desired but flashed just enough toward the end of the season to make you feel that the next season might be different.

So is the case once again as the 2020 season approaches. He’s coming off of his best season in 2019, when he started eight games and made 6.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks prior to sustaining a season-ending foot injury.

“I’m looking to go out with a bang,” Moon said. “I’m excited for this season to come up and just to prove what I can do. I know it’s been a long road with me with injuries and everything, but I know everything is in control and it will be OK.”

The redshirt senior is primarily known as a solid edge defender in the running game but has made just five career sacks. He’s looking to add to that total in a big way this season.

“I’ll be getting more sacks this season,” he said. “I’ve been working on that a lot, on my hands and my feet and just being more physical.

“Coach [Todd] Grantham’s going to put you in a good situation to make plays. All we got to do is follow the scheme and come to work every day and pay attention. Take what you do in the film room and apply it on the field, and things will take care of itself.”

Moon is battling Brenton Cox and Mohamoud Diabate for playing time at BUCK. To make himself more valuable to the team, he’s worked on improving his speed following the foot injury this offseason to allow him to cover running backs and tight ends and bend around the edge better, he said.

Gators on a mission

With COVID-19 lingering in the backdrop of the 2020 season, dozens of players at various schools have elected to opt-out of the season.

Four UF players – defensive end Zachary Carter and wide receivers Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, and Kadarius Toney – sat out the first week of fall practice but have returned to the team and intend to play this season.

As the Gators get set to enter their first game week, it looks like they will have their full roster available, other than players who are injured or have tested positive for the virus.

Moon said that they made the decision to play as a team.

“There was talk, but nobody was going to opt-out,” he said. “Everybody has a goal, and, since we’re able to play, everybody’s going to play.”

Moon clarified that their goal is to win an SEC Championship and a National Championship.

Of course, those are the goals every season at a program like Florida, but Moon believes the dedication and hard work they put in over the extended offseason will give them an advantage over other teams.

“I feel like since quarantine started, our team took on the responsibility to make sure we were doing everything we were supposed to do while we were away from each other,” he said. “So, I feel like we are going to be the most prepared team to do that.”

Elam driven to be the best

UF has churned out a conveyor belt of elite corners in recent years, including CJ Henderson, Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor, Vernon Hargreaves III and Joe Haden.

Sophomore cornerback Kaiir Elam understands the recent tradition at the position and looks up to those players, but he has no interest in comparing himself to them.

“Those guys are a big inspiration to me,” Elam said. “I watch their highlights and see how they played, the swagger they played with. I try to model my game after them. But, I can’t really compare myself to those guys. I don’t want to set a limit for myself. I want to be the greatest.”

That’s certainly a lofty goal, but if the final few games of 2019 were any indication, he’ll have a chance to accomplish it. He started five games and made three interceptions, including a leaping grab that sealed the win over Virginia in the Orange Bowl. By the end of the season, opposing quarterbacks seemed more willing to challenge veterans Marco Wilson and Henderson than Elam.

At 6-foot-2 and 187 pounds, Elam is a physical corner who excels in press coverage and has great ball skills. He said, somewhat jokingly, that he can run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds. He’s the complete package.

To take the next step from freshman phenom to one of the nation’s top players, Elam focused on perfecting his coverage techniques by watching film of some of the NFL’s top corners, including Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey and Stephon Gilmore, this summer. He also ran a mile or two per day on hills or the beach and did some cornerback drills with his father, former NFL safety Abram Elam.

“My biggest goal every day is just to get better, to keep elevating my game, to keep grinding and continue to be coachable,” he said. “Everything else will play out on its own.”

Despite being named to the coaches’ Freshman All-SEC Team last year, Elam has remained motivated and has impressed his head coach with his work ethic this offseason.

“A lot of guys that [play as freshmen] get into kind of a sophomore slump,” Dan Mullen said. “They kind of look and say, ‘Didn’t you see me play as a freshman last year? I was Freshman All-whatever.’

“A lot of guys struggle with that, but I love what I’ve seen out of his growth and maturity of not being as satisfied or any thoughts of, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at, and I did a great job last year. Look at me.’ One of the hardest working guys out there. He comes and works hard every day to make himself better. He’s a real student of the game. He’s a much better player now than he was last year.”

 

Notebook: Moon ready for his last ride, Miller stepping up in the middle

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