Durkin Likes His Linebackers

Jelani Jenkins

There is some experience and a whole lot of talent in the Florida Gators' linebacker group for the 2010 season. Speed is the name of the game, but there will be some growing pains as a new middle linebacker must be found and a few guys change positions within the group. Add to that a new linebacker coach in D.J. Durkin and this spring is important. Durkin likes what he has to work with.

Speed, speed, and more speed, should be the term used to describe the linebackers that Florida puts on the field right now. Any combination of the eight linebackers at practice every day would be a faster one than the Gators have had on the field in quite some time. That has to make the coaching staff happy. The fact that they are all hungry and eager to perform makes D.J. Durkin excited to be the coach of the group.

Durkin will have to work on a few depth chart situations especially at the middle linebacker position, but so far the newly acquired coach from Stanford is having a good time coaching his boys up.

"They are a great group of guys to work with," Durkin said of his linebackers during spring practice. "They are very responsive, take coaching well, and they are competing real hard out there. When you have guys like that it makes it fun to coach. You don't have to scream about effort, it is more about coaching technique and fitting in the defense.

Returning from a year ago are a pair of starter types that have each started at least one season worth of football for the Gators. Outside linebackers Brandon Hicks and A.J. Jones are a dynamic pair of speed backers that bring experience and talent to the group. Both played last year at the SAM backer position.

We know what we get from Jones at the SAM, a hard hitting linebacker that can cover and rush the passer. Jones had a great year last season and was able to fend off Hicks (after injury) who had a spectacular season at the same position in 2008.

Because of their abilities and experience, the staff has made a move and Hicks is now the starter at the WILL linebacker position. In the first quarter of spring ball, Durkin believes Hicks has made a great stand at the WILL position.

"We want them both on the field at the same time," Durkin said. "We feel that Hicks is a guy with his athletic ability and the way he runs...he's kind of a natural WILL. After four days of practice I think he can fill that spot and do well. He's excited about it, he likes it in there and is going to do a good job.

Hicks is a senior and with that comes the tag of potential leader. According to Durkin, he has slowly started to transform himself into a leader for the defense.

"He's really done a good job, that is something he and I have talked about a bunch," Durkin said of Hicks' leadership role on the defense. "It is probably something he hasn't had to do over his career since there have been guys to do that at his position. We have talked about that and he has changed his ways and is ready to step up in a leadership role. We are going to count on him for that, he is one of the guys that has played a lot at linebacker...we need a great year from him."

The preference is for a guy like Hicks who does speak up when it is time and does perform on the field when asked to do so.

"Leadership doesn't always have to be your seniors," Durkin said. "I think we have a lot of guys at our spot, Bostic, Jelani, A.J. Jones...we have some guys that could take that role, but we would like it to be Hicks. He's a senior and a talented guy, so we want him to be a leader."

Backing up Hicks right now at the WILL is freshman Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins played a little last year before sustaining a high ankle sprain that allowed him to redshirt. Jenkins is making it very tough for Durkin to keep him off the field in the spring and he knows the freshman will play a lot this year.

"Jelani Jenkins is an explosive dynamic athlete at linebacker," Durkin said. "He puts his face on you and hit you. He's an exciting guy that we need to keep bringing along. He is going to play a lot of football here.

Jenkins weighs in at about 220 pounds right now, and they would love to put a few more pounds on him, but he can play at his current weight and do it well.

"We still want to put some weight on him," Durkin said. "He plays a little bigger than what he is, but in the summer time we can put some weight on him. He's a great kid and competes...an explosive guy that can really run. That is something on defense you can't coach or teach and when you got it you've got it...and he does."

Backing up Jones at the SAM are sophomore Dee Finley and true freshman Neiron Ball. Finley moved over from safety this spring and ball is spending his first semester in college this spring after enrolling at Florida early.

"Dee is playing a new spot so everything is new to him," Durkin said. "Every time he sees a different situation or block, it is probably the first time he has seen it live. It's a load that he has to learn and he is doing well so far.

"Neiron is an explosive guy with a burst. He is a really great athlete. Probably a little undersized right now, we have to get some weight on him. He's a guy that can really help us, there is no doubt about it."

With the starters basically set at the two outside spots, it is the inside linebacker position that will command the most attention right now. Vying for time on the depth chart are senior Lorenzo Edwards, and sophomores Brendan Beal and Jon Bostic. According to Durkin, they have not settled in on a depth chart or starter at the MIKE.

"We evaluate personnel every day," Durkin said. "After practice we go watch (film) and evaluate it daily. One of the beauties about spring ball is it's competition for those spots. Every day guys are competing for playing time. We make those decisions and go with it, until someone steps up and takes the job over, that is what we will do."

Edwards got the first crack at the position on the first day of spring when he walked out with the first unit. This, his last season, he will be given the chance to earn that spot. He has all the physical tools to be an elite middle linebacker, but to do that he needs to be hungry and willing to get after it on the football field.

"Lo is a thick, 250-pound guy," Durkin said. "We have to bring him along in some other areas, but he is plenty big enough. We want him to be more assertive at the middle linebacker spot to take that position over. We want someone to step up and take that job over, that is a big position for our defense."

Beal is in his third spring and has had an injury plagued career so far. Dogged by the injuries, Beal hasn't had a chance to live up to any recruiting hype he may had coming in, even though he performed well when given the chance in previous springs. Healthy now, he is getting his chance to show what he can do.

"The thing I like the best is that he has gotten better every day," Durkin said about Beal and the spring that he is having. "Today was his best practice. That is a guy that hasn't played here in a while because of injuries, so that takes some getting used to...getting the pads on out there and everything moving fast. I look for him to keep making improvements. We will see where he is at the end, but he has gotten better every day."

Bostic was the odds on favorite to take the position this spring vacated by all-American Brandon Spikes. Bostic is 240 pounds of pure speed and a hammer when it comes to hitting someone. Durkin certainly is enjoying coaching up the young linebacker.

"He's a willing guy that wants to do well," Durkin said of Bostic. "He competes hard and is into it. He gets into it in meetings, (wide) eyed and always has a smile on his face. I think he has a very bright future."

Two young guys have separated themselves when it comes to film study. Bostic and Jenkins, both of the 2009 class are real pupils of the game and are constants in the film room.

"Those guys are coming in a bunch on their own and watching tape and stuff," Durkin said. "That is an essential part of playing college football, especially at the linebacker spot. You have to be a student of the game."

The Gators will be faster and may hit harder at linebacker than they have in many years. There is enough experience in the group that a leader should arise and their abilities could take them to a new level of Florida defense. The journey will be exciting and according to D.J. Durkin, a whole lot of fun.

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