The best sign that part of the future at linebacker for the Florida Gators was about to be on display happened just before the Outback Bowl. It was then that standouts Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone appeared as team captains – wearing sweatpants.
Davis, a senior, and Anzalone, a junior who is leaving early for the NFL, missed the game because of injury. Even without them, the Gators held Iowa to season-low point and yardage totals in a 30-3 rout. Even better news? Florida also did it without two other talented young linebackers expected to factor prominently into the Gators plans moving forward. Freshman middle linebacker David Reese, who emerged as the backup to Davis and played admirably in his stead, was injured and missed the game, and fellow freshman Jeremiah Moon, who has a huge upside, was redshirted.
Senior Daniel McMillian and walk-on Cristian Garcia played well. But what excited Gator fans the most was the continued good play of freshmen Kylan Johnson and Vosean Joseph. Both were fast and physical, and showed instincts and toughness that helped Florida shut down the Hawkeyes. In the process, they showed a promising glimpse of the future of Gator linebacking. They helped keep a team with two 1,000-yard rushers from reaching the end zone.
Specifically, the new kids on the block are:
* David Reese. He was the first of the group to truly show up this season. A true freshman who got a jump on the competition by graduating high school early, he looked sturdy from the get-go. At 6 feet 0 and 244 pounds, he is the shortest but thickest of the group, a true middle linebacker. He doesn’t have Davis’ speed and probably won’t be as good in pass coverage, but he is a tough guy, hard worker and sure tackler.
* Kylan Johnson. If Reese is the prototypical middle linebacker, Johnson has grown into the perfect weakside ‘backer. He also should have a good idea what the opposing quarterback is thinking – he was a star quarterback at Dallas Skyline. How good was he? Johnson led Skyline to a 14-1 record as a senior by throwing for 2,456 yards and, get this, 36 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Yep, his touchdown pass-to-interception ratio was 36-0. But he was recruited as a safety, then redshirted in 2015 season before growing into a 6-1, 231-pound linebacker. He began to get extensive time when Anzalone broke his hand against Arkansas in early November.
* Vosean Joseph. This true freshman who can really run and really hit first gained notice in the 16-10 win at LSU, when his punishing hit on Tigers quarterback Danny Etling at the 1 led to LSU eventually botching a short field-goal attempt and was a huge point in the game. Joseph can play inside or outside; he comes off as a weakside linebacker sort but can play the strong side and cover a tight end as well. At 6-1 and 226, he isn’t quite as big as Reese and Johnson but is extremely athletic.
* Jeremiah Moon. A true outside linebacker, Moon is the biggest mystery of the group because he was redshirted as he tried to gain weight. He is the tallest of the group at 6-4, but also the lightest, listed at 218 before the season. I’m told he may have the best upside of the group. Lightning fast with a quick first step, he can play over the tight end in the base defense, which means playing in space against the pass. He also can rush the passer when asked.
Those four aren’t the only linebackers on the roster. Rayshad Jackson, a 6-0, 226-pound redshirt freshman who played in nine games, will be in the mix, as will some incoming freshmen. But a big key to the Gators’ defense will be those first four, Florida’s newest group of tough, speedy linebackers.
(You can follow Frank Frangie on Twitter @Frank_Frangie)
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