by Jeff Barlis
Missing out on two linebackers recently has Florida recruiting fans a bit concerned.
Is it warranted? Well, yes and no.
On May 13 five-star linebacker Noor Davis (The Villages, Fla.) picked Stanford over Florida. Four days later, four-star Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, Ga.) picked Miami over Florida.
While there are some questions as to how highly the UF coaches regarded Kirby, there is no doubt Davis was at the top of their wish list.
Florida needs impact linebackers.
A quick glance at the Gator depth chart shows plenty of bodies. Employing some 3-4 formations with the hybrid Buck linebacker also adds numbers, size and talent to the position.
This fall, Gator fans can look forward to a very versatile linebacking corps with sophomore Ronald Powell and redshirt freshman Chris Martin rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Junior Jonathan Bostic and redshirt sophomore Jelani Jenkins can stop the run and help out in coverage as well.
But what about the long- and short-term future?
From that perspective the depth chart starts to look more troublesome, as Florida appears to be undersized and raw at the linebacker position. Here’s our projected depth chart …
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End “Buck”
So. Ronald Powell 6-4, 250
RFr. Chris Martin 6-4, 240
RJr. Lerentee McCray 6-2, 241
Weakside Linebacker “Will”
RSo. Jelani Jenkins 6-1, 223
So. Darrin Kitchens 6-2, 218
Fr. Graham Stewart 6-1, 215
Middle Linebacker “Mike”
Jr. Jonathan Bostic 6-1, 240
RFr. Michael Taylor 6-0, 217
Strongside Linebacker “Sam”
Jr. Dee Finley 6-2, 219
RFr. Gideon Ajagbe 6-3, 212
It’s easy to see why the Gator coaching staff entertained the notion of moving 6-3, 230-pound sophomore Gerald Christian to linebacker. But he is back on offense (for now). Also, sophomore Neiron Ball (6-2, 222) was expected to contend for a starting job but now has football on the back-burner as he recovers from a blood vessel that burst in his brain in February. It is uncertain if or when he will return.
The situation at linebacker was exacerbated when Florida missed on two of the nation’s elite prospects in the class of 2011. Curtis Grant (Ohio State) and Stephone Anthony (Clemson) were very high on Florida until Urban Meyer’s resignation.
Now it’s a priority for the Gators to land some linebackers for the class of 2012, but unfortunately for UF, 2012 is not a very good year for linebackers in the state.
“At the linebacker position, it’s definitely a year where it’s hurting in the state of Florida,” said Chris Nee, Rivals.com state of Florida analyst. “It’s pretty apparent looking at the recruiting of Florida, Florida State and Miami at that position that they are having to look at a lot of out-of-state options. And they’re never quick to go out of state when they can get someone very good in state.”
So Florida coaches must instead scour the nation for linebacker talent. Here are some of their top targets:
* Kaiwan Lewis, 6-2, 230, Hammonton, N.J., St. Joseph — Florida is working hard to recruit this prospect, who is rated four-stars by Scout and Rivals. He says UF will be in his top five. Florida coaches are set to visit Lewis at his high school today and hope he visits campus, perhaps for Friday Night Lights in July.
* Deaysean Rippy, 6-1, 200, McKee’s Rocks, Penn., Sto Rox — Another northern prospect rated four-stars by Rivals and Scout, Rippy has had a strong connection with Florida coach Will Muschamp ever since he went to a University of Texas summer football camp three years ago. Rippy also visited the UF campus last summer while he was on vacation. He’s looking to enroll early, which should only add to the Gators’ interest.
* Antonio Morrison, 6-3, 220, Bolingbrook, Ill. — Florida is looking for a true middle linebacker with size and offered Morrison on April 18. He plans to visit this summer and says Florida is definitely in his top two with Oregon. He’s rated a four-star prospect by Rivals and three-star by Scout and 247Sports.
* Beniquez Brown, 6-2, 205, Florence, Ala. — Another prospect who recently drew a UF offer, Brown is seen by many as an athlete who could also play on offense. Alabama is in the lead for his services but he may visit UF this summer. Scout ranks him a four-star linebacker, 247Sports gives him four stars at running back, while Rivals gives him three stars as an athlete.
Another Alabama linebacker, Kwon Alexander, has Florida among his top teams but will likely come down to an in-state battle between Alabama and Auburn. Alexander is Scout’s No. 1-rated outside linebacker, which is just the kind of impact Florida needs in this recruiting cycle.
The Buck position could yield a couple of gems, as the Gators are in contention to land top prospects such as Tampa, Fla.’s Tyriq McCord (6-3, 210) and Virginia Beach, Va.’s Eli Harold (6-3, 215) among others.
The Gators have a verbal commitment from Largo, Fla., outside linebacker Jeremi Powell (6-2, 200), who is thought to be one of the best in the state. But after Davis, McCord and Powell, the talent level drops in Florida.
So look for Florida to evaluate a number of linebackers, probably inviting several prospects of interest to Friday Night Lights in July. In filling their desired numbers, however, the Gators can be choosy and focus on getting one middle linebacker, one more outside linebacker and a couple of DE/LB hybrids.
This is clearly an important area for UF coaches in both recruiting talent and developing the players on the roster. Missing out on more elite talent could mean a long wait for the class of 2013 to provide reinforcements.
Follow me at Twitter.com/JeffBarlis.