GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When Gators linebacker Jon Bostic lines up for a play, he likes the company he keeps.
On one side is weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins. In the other direction is often strongside linebacker Lerentee McCray. Bostic is likely to see a lot of Neiron Ball or Darrin Kitchens on the strong side in fall camp as McCray works at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end “Buck” position usually occupied by the injured Ronald Powell.
Bostic, the team’s leading tackler a year ago, is a fan of Florida’s defensive line and secondary, too.
“We can be as good as we want to be,’’ Bostic said. “We’ve got the players up front. We’ve got the secondary. We’ve got the linebackers. It’s really about taking that next step. We’ve got to take that step by taking the ball from the ball carriers, creating more turnovers any way we can, and playing smart.
“It’s not one single position group. We have to play better as a whole if we want to be one of the best defenses in the country.”
As the Gators open their second fall camp under head coach Will Muschamp, the defense is getting most of the pub for good reason. The Gators have all but one defensive starter back on a unit that finished near the top of the country in several categories last season.
One of those categories was not turnover margin, which is a huge emphasis. The Gators want to force more turnovers than they did a year ago, and the linebackers must play a key role for that to happen.
The group is a talented one. Bostic, Jenkins and McCray each were placed on the Butkus Award watch list.
With fall camp opening this week, GatorZone.com is previewing each position group. Here is a look at the linebackers:
No. 1 Jon Bostic (Sr., 6-1, 243)
At a glance: Recorded a team-high 94 tackles last season starting in the middle. Bostic’s 169 career tackles lead the Gators. He provides a steady and physical presence in the middle, recording a career-high 13 tackles in last season’s loss to LSU.
Bostic is the most experienced of the linebackers and has been productive for the Gators since he arrived. He says he is stronger than he has ever been which should only help as he tries to stop SEC running backs.
No. 3 Jelani Jenkins (RS Jr., 6-0, 233)
At a glance: An SEC All-Freshman team selection in 2010, Jenkins followed that up with a stellar sophomore season, finishing third on the team with 75 tackles. Jenkins’ consistency and ability to defend the pass make him a key component for the defense.
No. 6 Dante Fowler Jr. (Fr., 6-3, 261)
At a glance: One of the state’s top defensive prospects out of Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, Fowler chose the Gators after initially committing to Florida State. He has an intriguing combination of size and speed and could see action at the “Buck” position and linebacker if he is able to crack the regular rotation.
No. 11 Neiron Ball (RS So., 6-2, 222)
At a glance: Ball last played in the 2011 Outback Bowl, missing all of last season due to a congenital vascular condition that required hospitalization and radiation. Fully cleared to return to football, Ball could be a sleeper to watch on defense. The coaching staff loves his attitude and ability.
To read more about Ball, check out this story today from Yahoo! Sports. Gators linebackers coach D.J. Durkin tells Yahoo! that Ball will be “a household name for Gators fans.”
No. 12 Antonio Morrison (Fr., 6-1, 216)
At a glance: An early enrollee from Bolingbrook (Ill.) High, Morrison was named a second-team high school All-American by USA Today. He possesses the type of toughness and can-do attitude that impressed Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the spring.
No. 25 Gideon Ajagbe (RS So., 6-3, 222)
At a glance: He has appeared in only four games for the Gators. He missed the 2010 season due to a torn rotator cuff suffered in preseason camp. Ajagbe is most likely to play on special teams and perhaps as a reserve if he can stay healthy.
No. 28 Jeremi Powell (Fr., 6-1, 192)
At a glance: Powell recorded 15 sacks as a senior at Pinellas Park High and is good enough of an athlete that he played receiver and running back in high school. Powell needs to add bulk to play linebacker in college but has the skills necessary to be a solid player.
No. 34 Lerentee McCray (RS Sr., 6-2, 247)
At a glance: McCray is recovered from offseason shoulder surgery that sidelined him in the spring. He started five games last season and finished with 24 tackles, 7.5 for loss. The coaching staff is looking for McCray to play an even bigger role this season and hopes he provides consistent pressure on the quarterback in the “Buck” role.
No. 49 Darren Kitchens (Jr., 6-2, 222)
At a glance: Used primarily on special teams, Kitchens is a good athlete who is expected to factor more into the rotation at linebacker. Kitchens made one start last season and recorded a career-high 12 tackles against Furman.
No. 51 Michael Taylor (RS So., 6-0, 220)
At a glance: A back-up to Bostic in the middle, Taylor made huge strides last season to become a consistent playmaker for the Gators. He recorded 36 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and he returned an interception 30 yards in a win a Kentucky.
No. 95 Alex McCalister (Fr., 6-6, 223)
At a glance: McCalister is a long and lean athlete who has good speed and athleticism. He was a first-time All-State selection at West Forsyth (N.C.) High last year. He needs to add muscle and learn more about the system to play regularly.