Middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense: he runs the huddle, calls out plays, and essentially controls the field from his central location. So it is an asset to have a seasoned veteran manning the middle. As a true senior, Brandon Spikes is one of the elders of the Gators defense. But what some people may not know is that he takes after one of the most unsightly characters in all of cinema.
In the greatest sci-fi/action movie starring two future US governors, the Predator was a ruthless killing machine. He was also so hideous that Schwarzenegger was prompted to exclaim: “you are one ugly [bleepity-bleeper],” before finally defeating him with a falling tree trunk. But with his trademark dreads and facemask, that alien hunter extraordinaire sure could massacre Central American villages.
Spikes sports similar features (dreads, facemask visor, and a destructive attitude) and his play reminds observers of that solitary force that ripped through a fictional jungle so many years ago.
His has been all over the field during his career, totaling 239 tackles (including a whopping 131 in 2007). He added four interceptions last year as the defensive line improved, creating extra opportunities.
One thing that sets Spikes apart is that with each takedown comes a statement. He is known as an explosive personality between the sidelines and it comes out in every tackle.
Last year against Georgia, with UF trying to set a tone early and shake off the embarrassment of 2007, Spikes crashed through the line and de-cleated star running back Knowshon Moreno. It was reminiscent of a WWF Goldberg spearing (or was it WCW?).
In any case, Spikes leveled him for a three-yard loss, removing any doubt that the Gators were thirsty for revenge. Adding insult to injury, Spikes could be seen jawing at the mouth while Moreno lay there under his chinstrap. Moreno is lucky he didn't bring out the shoulder cannon.
Spikes is not the only fine wine that has aged to perfection at linebacker. Occupying one of the outside spots are fifth-year senior Ryan Stamper and junior Brandon Hicks.
Stamper has had to wait his turn through injury and behind upperclassmen but when given his chance last year he turned in a strong 2008 campaign. He earned team captain status while starting 11 games and recording 45 tackles.
His instincts and decision making have matured so that he is rarely out of position and is a consistent stopper for the Gators. Barring injury, he should continue to provide excellent support in 2009.
Hicks, entering his third year, came from Jacksonville with lofty expectations. At the end of the 2007 recruiting cycle, he was hotter than the ladies in Tom Brady’s little black book. Florida fought off LSU and Miami (FL) to sign Hicks, hoping he could solidify a defense devastated by injuries.
Even during the defensive black hole that was the 2007 season, Hicks was not able to contribute much. However, something clicked during his sophomore season and Hicks finished last year with five-straight starts, beating out A.J. Jones in the process. With his outstanding speed (he played receiver in high school), and is a terror blitzing from the outside.
The heart of any defense lies in solid linebacker production, and Florida is in great shape heading into this season. With a savvy, veteran starters backed by talented underclassmen, look for this position to be the strongest unit on the field.
A quick review of the rest of the 2009 Florida linebacker corps:
Dustin Doe (Sr)—He is a former starter who lost his spot to Stamper early last season. As a sophomore he appeared in all 13 games and looked to be ready to break out in 2008 but never quite met his potential and is now a very capable backup.
A.J. Jones (R-Jr)—Like Doe, Jones entered 2008 as a starter. He is one of those guys who isn’t bad, but just never reached elite status and got passed by guys who worked harder and played a step faster.
Hicks shot up the depth chart and now resides above Jones. A.J. combines with Doe to give the Gators what is essentially a “starting” second string.
Lorenzo Edwards (Jr)—Edwards is a very athletic guy who played safety during his high school days in Orlando. The fact he does not have a redshirt may ensure that he never becomes a starter for the Gators who are stacked at linebacker for years to come. He can play when he does get on the field, however, recording 10 tackles against Kentucky a year ago.
Larentee McCray (Soph)—McCray saw reserve duty last year, appearing in eight games. Anything more than special teams and mop up duty is unlikely for him this season, but he has added weight and may be one to watch in 2010.
Brendan Beal (R-Fr)—A torn ACL kept Beal off the field in 2008, which may be a good thing that he didn’t waste a year on special teams. As an early enrollee last spring, he looked more like a 1940's Big-10 linebacker that excelled in a “three yards and a cloud of dust” role.
However, early reports this year tell a different tale and he may be ready for the fast and furious SEC. The extra year he gained from injury may end up being a blessing in disguise.
Jonathan Bostic (Fr)—A safety in high school, Bostic enrolled early in 2009 to get a leg up on learning his new position. Apparently, he is a fast learner.
Bostic wowed coaches and teammates on a daily basis in spring practice and had continued his impressive play this fall. He is now unlikely to redshirt and may see meaningful minutes backing up Spikes this season.
Jelani Jenkins (Fr)—Jelani will give Janoris a run for his money as the best Jenkins on the defense in the years to come. A classic man-child, Jenkins will only be 17 at the start of the season and has already been the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year twice ('07 and '08).
It is unclear if he will redshirt, but with his ability (Rivals 10th overall rated prospect), speed (4.4 forty) and brains (4.0 GPA throughout high school), there is a chance he will be thrown into the fire early. This should make him ready to compete for a starting spot next year.