Notebook: Linebackers improving every week

Notebook: Linebackers improving every week

The injury to Jelani Jenkins tested the depth of the Gators at linebacker early this season, but with him healthy, the Florida linebacker unit is playing better. Jenkins' injuries forced freshman Antonio Morrison and redshirt sophomore Michael Taylor to step up. With the depth improved, the Gators also have a middle linebacker that Will Muschamp thinks is one of the best in the nation.

"I think Jon Bostic is playing as well as any linebacker in the country," Will Muschamp said. "I think he's playing really well and he disengages on blocks. All the things we really presented to him last season of getting stronger, getting firmer with his hands in short-area contact where he's got to get off blocks and shed. He's always been a really good space player."

Bostic is third on the team with 38 tackles but leads Florida with six tackles for a loss. He also leads the team with three sacks, while deflection two passes and creating three quarterback hurries. He has also forced one fumble.

The statistics are improved for Bostic but watching his play makes it easy to see where he has improved. In his first three years on campus, Bostic struggled to get off blocks and make tackles. He's now tossing linemen and fullbacks to the side and making plays. The sideline-to-sideline speed has always been there, but he's now making the plays all over the field.

He showed signs of the progress early in the season.

"Go back to a couple of plays there against (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny) Manziel early in the year," Muschamp said. "That guy's turning out to be a pretty good football player. (Bostic) made some plays on him in the open field, which were outstanding plays."

After serving as a defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban, Muschamp has been around the type of players wanted in the NFL. Bostic has shown the qualities that professional teams want to see in the draft. He's athletic and can stay on the field and play inside linebacker, regardless of the situation.

"He can play first down, second down and third down," Muschamp said. "He can cover, and there's not a lot of guys that can play inside and can cover and can play on third down. He can. He's very intelligent, but the other thing about Jon, and I try to get our guys to understand, it's a 53-man roster (in the NFL). You better play special teams. Jon is on our punt team. He's helped us on kickoff. He does a lot of other things that brings value to him in the organization."

Jelani Jenkins played just his second full game of the season on Saturday against South Carolina. He broke his thumb in the second game of the year against the Aggies and was held out until Florida played LSU on October 6. After his return, Jenkins dealt with a hamstring issue that kept him out until Saturday.

His return was noticeable. Jenkins tied for fourth on the team with four tackles, including one sack on the first drive of the game.

"Jelani has obviously been hurt but when he's played, he's played really well, a guy that has played really well in space," Muschamp said. "But I remember thinking back when they were backed up on their goal line coming out the other night and he made a hit in the hole on Lattimore and it was a heck of a tackle."

GILLISLEE SLOWING DOWN: After taking college football by storm early in the season, Mike Gillislee has rushed the ball 36 times for 104 yards in the last two games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The coaches don't think it has been an issue for Gillislee. Opposing teams are starting to zero in on him, which opens up other parts of the offense, like Driskel's school record 177 rushing yards at Vanderbilt.

"We want to travel things through him on game day and see where we are, but if people are willing to try and take that away, it's going to open some other opportunities with our team," Muschamp said. "Obviously in Vanderbilt it opened up Jeff being able to run some of the zone read concepts. Saturday, it was a weird game in the first half for us offensively because of the field position.

We're able to score quickly then South Carolina has an extended drive, the second drive of the game that took a lot of time off the clock so we didn't have a bunch of snaps per say to get things going offensively. But it is important to get Mike going."

That's the plan, as long as opposing defenses allow it to happen. If they continue to zero in on shutting Gillislee down, the Gators will gladly find other things that work, as offensive coordinator Brent Pease showed in the second half against the Gamecocks.

It hasn't changed the way Gillislee is running the ball. The coaching staff still sees him running hard and the way he was when he was putting up big numbers.

"I think we're getting enough guys spread out to what we're doing and they've got to honor this and honor that," Pease said. "I think Mike definitely has to get back in the mix. It's not like we're not intending to him. But people are concerned about him and trying to shut him down, which opens it up for somebody else. "

OFFENSIVE LINE IMPROVEMENT: The running game has been so effective because of the play of the offensive line. They struggled in run and pass blocking last season, and both have improved this year. The unit is especially good at run blocking this season.

The coaches think that has come from their off the field improvement.

"I think we're a unit that is a little more tied together. There are two units that need to be the closest units on your football team – that's the offensive line and the secondary. Generally, if they're not on the same page, it's not good for your football team. They have been that way, and I think our communication is much better because of that."

The offensive line also takes their struggles from last season to heart. They heard about it in the offseason. With the new strength and conditioning program focused on second half success, the Florida offensive line being able to create push and open up holes was an important part of it.

They learned from their mistakes in the offseason. That combined with another year in the system helped the offensive line open up holes in the running games.

"You look going into last season, Xavier Nixon and Jon Halapio were the only guys that had played extensive snaps in the Southeastern Conference," Muschamp said. "It was a pretty daunting task to what those guys were trying to undertake in a new scheme and a new system. They're a year old, a year more mature, experienced, stronger.

"I think you look at all the reasons why we've made a huge step forward, and Tim Davis has a huge part of that, as well. He's an outstanding football coach. He was a guy I worked with when I was with the Miami Dolphins. His track record speaks for himself when he was at Wisconsin and Southern Cal."

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