Gator Chomps: Linebacker Recruiting Board

Will top linebacker target Jeffrey Holland choose the Gators?

Will top linebacker target Jeffrey Holland choose the Gators?

The dead period for prospective college football recruits ends at midnight Wednesday January 14. Three weeks will be left before national signing day which falls this year on february 4.

Like a runner awaiting the sound of the starting gun, the Florida Gators new coaching staff will hit the ground running trying to land the few top rated prospects left on their board. They’ll also attempt to find some diamond-in-the-rough type three star players who can help fill out a recruiting class that is perilously low on commits (8) this late in the cycle.

Previously, in our countdown to signing day series, Swamp Music has previewed some of the top remaining prospects on the recruiting board by position including quarterback, running back, offensive line, receiver, and defensive line. Today we preview the remaining targets at linebacker.

Beside the offensive line, no position is more critical this cycle for the Gators than linebacker after not getting any last year. While the Gators return a nice core of young talent at the position, they are very short on depth.

After losing one of their top targets, Adonis Thomas, who decommitted from the Gators due to the instability of the coaching staff, it’s imperative the new staff work hard to secure their top target as well as find one or two more who could provide adequate depth without using up a scholarship for a non-producer.

The situation with the Gators linebacker recruiting is downright scary as they are in danger of striking out altogether at the position for the second consecutive recruiting cycle. That would be disastrous.

The top remaining linebacker target is one of the top rated players overall and has long been at the top of their board: Jeffrey Holland from Jacksonville Trinity Christian. Holland (6-2 230), a consensus four star and top 100 player, is an athletic, versatile linebacker with size, strength, and agility. He’s projected as an outside linebacker with great instincts as well as good lateral speed and solid coverage abilities. He’s a guy the Gators cannot afford to miss on. Behind him there is little left on the recruiting radar at the position.

Long thought to be a Gator lean, Holland appears to be leaning more towards Auburn now, especially since former Gator head coach Will Muschamp became the Tigers defensive coordinator. He has a longstanding relationship with Muschamp and little with the new staff.

However, Holland does know new linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who recruited him while at Arkansas, and he does appear impressed with the hire.

“He (Shannon) coached Ray Lewis, so I know he’s a great coach,” Holland said in an article by Thomas Goldkamp of 247sports.

At the very least, the hire keeps Florida alive in the race for his signature.

“It’s good, it brings Florida back in the picture in a good way,” Holland said. “He recruited me, so he’s probably the only coach I know on staff.”

Shannon and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will have their work cut out for them trying to do more than simply get in the picture with Holland. They have three weeks to overcome longstanding relationships with other coaches, Muschamp in particular, and convince him to take a leap of faith into the unknown with an all new staff with a program that has fallen on hard times.

They’ve got some other guys, perhaps even more influential, in their corner however.

“I got (high school) teammates there, Nick Washington,” Holland was quoted in a story by Kassidy Hill on GatorCountry. “I got two teammates, Washington and Kavaris (Harkless), they’re there right now. I know Caleb Brantley, I know a lot of those guys.”

He added, “Vernon, I’ve been knowing him for a while. (He’s)  just wanting me to commit every time I see him.”

Can this staff reel in the big fish at this late date? Time will tell but this is why they get paid the big bucks.

The next guy up on the linebacker board just recently received an offer from the Gators: Rayshad Jackson (6-2 215) from Miami Norland. In fact, the Gator offer was only his second offer period. The other was from Arkansas where Randy Shannon offered him before taking the Florida job.

Most new names that you hear at this late point in the cycle are reaches, players that likely won’t contribute much over their careers other than taking up roster space. Their brought in to provide bodies by a coaching staff who is fearful of the blatant holes in the depth chart but hopeful they can find a sleeper, an under-the-radar guy who they can to perform at higher than expected level.

Jackson certainly qualifies as an under-the-radar type player having only the two offers. But can he buck the law of averages and not be a reach at Florida? And why is Shannon so impressed with him to offer him at two different schools when no other school has?

Perhaps Shannon sees a little of himself. Like Jackson, Shannon was also a star linebacker at Norland high school.

“We (he and Shannon) have a great relationship and he’s also from Norland, so we are buddies from the same school,” Jackson told Luke Stampini of 247sports.

Or perhaps he simply likes Jackson’s natural instincts for the position.

Despite his smallish stature at 215, Jackson seems to have a knack for getting to the ball carrier. A skilled pass rusher, he’s equally adept at fighting through blocks, slipping out of blocks, or using his burst off the snap to run around blockers. The bottom line is this guy has skills, he’s just raw and will need to get in the weight room and bulk up significantly before he’ll have a shot to be an SEC caliber player.

Shannon likes him though, it’s clear he will try to secure a commitment, and although Jackson remains non-committal for the moment, there’s a greater than average chance he commits on his official visit to Florida on January 30.

“Well, Florida kind of leads,” Jackson said. “It’s in-state and close to home.”

One guy the Gators haven’t given up on is former Gator commit Adonis Thomas (OLB, 6-4 230) from Lawrenceville (GA) Central Gwinnett. Thomas, like Holland, is a big, strong, athletic linebacker who plays sideline-to-sideline has solid coverage skills and is a ferocious hitter. He reportedly runs in the 4.5 40 range and last season he finished with 124 tackles, 11 for loss, and 5 sacks. He’s a freakish athlete for sure with a good combination of size, speed, strength, and athleticism.

“With his skill set, he’s getting bigger and faster,” Thomas’ high school head coach Todd Wofford said. “There’s no telling what all he’ll be capable of doing.”

And he appears to be solid off the field as well as he is on the field.

“Off the field, he’s very serious about his academics,” Wofford added. “He’s not a ego guy and not a ‘me’ guy. He’s very coachable. He’s just a great kid all the way around and one of those physical freak type of kids.”

He originally was down to Florida and Alabama and chose the Gators as he had a close relationship with former head coach Will Muschamp. When it began to appear that Muschamp wouldn’t survive after this season he ended up decommitting from the Gators and eventually committing to Alabama.

Now new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins wants to meet with Thomas and try to get the Gators back into the picture by securing a visit to UF sometime after his trip to Alabama this weekend according to Luke Stampini of 247sports.

If the new staff can secure a visit, it would be huge. When Thomas committed to the Gators he and his family appeared impressed as much with the academics at Florida as the football. If Collins infectious personality can pique his interest and head coach Jim McElwain can sell his vision for the long term success, the Gators may have a shot with Thomas who has long been at the top of the Gators board with Holland. In fact, the reason the previous staff didn’t settle for a linebacker last year after missing top targets is they felt they had two good ones in Thomas and Holland this year.

One other name bandied about is Auburn commit Richard McBryde (OLB, 6-2 210) from Troy (AL). He’s another smallish speedy linebacker with good instincts. He’d be a good weakside linebacker in the system that coach Collins runs.

Speculation is that he has an official visit scheduled to Florida on January 30th but it remains to be seen if he’ll actually make the trip or how much mutual interest there really is.

Another guy the new staff is attempting to get back into the picture with is Montezuma (GA) Macon County LB Roquan Smith (6-2 210). The Gators were a player for Smith early in this recruiting cycle but fell off during the season as the Gators struggled and he continued to take trips to Athens to visit the home state Bulldogs.

Georgia has long been considered the favorite to land him but Collins wants to visit him in an attempt to secure an official visit. The new staff has a lot of ground to make up to even get back in the picture here much less secure a commitment. The Gators need 2-3 linebackers this cycle so expect them to lay it on thick in an attempt to snag two of the top guys.


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