This article embodies a natural offseason phenomenon where fans of football teams passionately disagree with some sort of decision made by those who do this for a living. Here I am about to call any number of coaches foolish for making a decision made with infinitely more data at their disposal and laughably more football wisdom. Nevertheless, the summer is long, and I don’t have shit else to do. Let’s make this a series shall we?
Where they have it WRONG – Amari Burney at linebacker.
I’ve been beating this drum for a while; I truly believe that the coaches have it wrong playing Amari Burney at linebacker as opposed to safety. For those not tight on the timeline of relevant events: last year as a true freshman, Burney began his spring at safety and then found a more permanent home for the season at star backing up Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Burney played sparingly in 2018 in his back-up role, flashing insane amounts of talent that Gator Nation quickly picked up on. Going into 2019 with a few spots open in the starting 11 on defense; it was really only a question of where, not if, AB will start.
Jump ahead to the first day of spring ball 2019 and one of the more interesting developments reported by those in attendance: Amari Burney, first team linebacker lining up next to David Reese. The rationale made sense, Burney’s unique combination of size and speed would make him a terror in space and covering tight ends. Playing next to Reese, a guy who excels in everything outside of the speed department, Burney could make up for a bit that was lacking in the 2018 version of Florida’s linebackers. Many were highly receptive to the move and still are today, I remain the outlier.
I think Florida’s coaches got this one wrong for multiple reasons. Before I get too deep into my reasoning, please understand I’m not saying Burney will be a bad linebacker. To the contrary, I’m fully sold on Burney’s talents and think he’s a guy that will excel at the position.. eventually. The main reason I’m planting my flag on this hill is I think AB has All-American potential at strong safety, you don’t see that type of ceiling every day.
The depth chart supports Burney at safety.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the defensive depth chart. I’m very, very high on the Florida defense; I really do not see very many holes… outside of safety. Right now, it looks like there are four guys that will play the vast majority of the snaps on the back end: Brad Stewart, Jeawon Taylor, Donovan Stiner, and Shawn Davis. Each one of these guys is severely limited for their own reasons. Taylor struggles playing deep centerfield, Stew can’t get out of his own way off the field, Davis can’t seem to figure out where to be and when, and Stiner is (and I can’t stress this enough) just bad.
Now lets take a look at what we have at linebacker outside of Burney. Florida’s 2019 defense will feature the best group of linebackers it has had since Randy Shannon first became in charge of picking who got to wear the logo. Beginning in 2016, we’ve suffered through some groups that simply did not rise to the Gator standard at the position. In 2019, the main players outside of Burney are David Reese (obvious starter), James Houston, Ventrell Miller, and David Reese 2.0 (though his actual position is a bit of a mystery). Admittedly, a few weeks ago my depth chart argument was a bit stronger as the Gators have suffered a few defections at the position in Rayshad Jackson and Kylan Johnson. Regardless, both of these guys were likely at the bottom of the chart. For speculation’s sake, I’d actually like to throw Mohammed Diabate in for consideration here as I think he’s got the ability to play in the middle in a pinch. I’m not yet ready to count on Tyron Hopper as a contributor as I think he needs a year with Savage as his best friend before he plays between the tackles in the SEC.
Unlike the uninspiring group at safety, I think you have two guys in Ventrell Miller and James Houston that have very high ceilings at linebacker. As Burney would be a perfect fit at strong, he’d be able to play in the box frequently and pair with Brad Stewart who excels playing in space on the back end. It’s a natural fit. Playing Burney at strong allows you to seal the biggest question-mark on the defensive side of the ball without leaving much of a hole at linebacker.
You don’t just start playing linebacker out of nowhere.
From my personal experience, you’ve got to be a special amount of crazy to play linebacker. This is something I think a lot of fans overlook, as it is not something you can really quantify. There’s no question Burney is a freak athlete; we are talking about a 225lb human widely reported to be one of the fastest players on the team. The question is does he have the right amount of crazy to play linebacker in the most physical conference in college football?
The answer may very well be yes, as I don’t personally know the kid. I just would like to stress that often-times a player plays in space as a defensive back or a wide receiver for a reason (prior to this spring Burney played as a skill guy for the entirety of his career as far as I know). It may sound like an overused cliché when people say you’ve got to have that “dawg” in you, but the cliché is nothing but facts. No testing, no measurables are going to be able to tell us whether Burney is prepared to play in a phone booth.
As I alluded to above, to my knowledge this will mark the first time in his career that Burney has played linebacker. That should scare some people, no matter how good the kid may be, it is a whole new experience playing solely in the box. There will be growing pains against the run. Why subject yourself to that when you’ve got guys available who live and breathe the position?
What I would do differently.
What Burney brings to the table at linebacker is speed, and lots of it. Though there’s not another option nearly as fast as Burney, I think we have guys on the roster capable of getting sideline to sideline and covering your average tight end. In moving Burney to strong, I’d slide Ventrell Miller into the other linebacker spot. I’m going with Ventrell over the more popular Houston largely due to the need for speed next to Reese. I think Houston is a bit more of north-south linebacker in the mold of Reese, while Ventrell has flashed the ability to beat running backs to the sideline. Ventrell Miller was born to play linebacker. He’s got all the dawg you can ask for and has racked up just enough experience for me to be comfortable with starting him next to David Reese.
Moving Ventrell to linebacker and Burney to safety gets your 11 best players on the field on defense. Please keep in mind that just because you start the game somewhere doesn’t mean you play the whole game at that position. Grantham thrives when he can confuse an offense with disguising a defender’s true role on the field. Burney can easily slide to backer on obvious passing downs. By mixing and matching where the human missile plays, Grantham can keep an offense on their toes. My fear with Burney playing linebacker is he becomes a target for offenses early in his transition. I’d run the ball right at him constantly until he figures it out, especially considering how solid Reese is against the run and how few holes the rest of the starters present.
As I said earlier, don’t take this article as my indictment of Burney’s ability to play the position. Disagreeing with the coaches does not necessarily mean their decision will be a failure. My passion behind this disagreement is largely due to my belief that this Gator defense has the potential to be truly elite if they get the right guys on the field together.
Written by our friend, Vari. You can follow him on Twitter at @157Gale.