Florida Gators: bryan cox jr.
A poor season in 2013 brought a clean slate. A new offense brought opportunities at every position. A large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen brought a much-needed infusion of talent.
Going into spring practice, our list of players to watch consisted of quarterback Jeff Driskel, cornerback Jalen Tabor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, and running back Adam Lane.
Now that football is finished for a few months, we'll take a look at the spring results and see who else stood out.
Tabor: It says a lot when a true freshman is thrown right into the competition for a starting cornerback job. At 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, Tabor used his long arms to make plays in coverage. He still needs to work on his press technique and where to keep his eyes, but it's easy to see that he has great athleticism and natural instincts.
Robinson: He came in with a lot of hype last season as a true freshman and didn't respond well to the rigors of college life, but this spring Robinson lived up to expectations. He is clearly Florida's most complete receiver and best hope for a star in the passing game.
Goolsby: The true freshman has the talent to become Florida's top pass-catching tight end. He drew the attention and praise of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. But most young tight ends struggle with inline blocking, and Goolsby was no exception. He still has a lot to learn before he gets regular playing time.
Lane: Out of 12 redshirt freshmen, Lane made the biggest splash this spring. He proved to be very tough to tackle because, at 5-7, 222 pounds, he's built like a fire plug and never stops moving his feet. The Gators rode the "Lane Train" to a team-leading 12 carries for 67 yards (5.8 yards per carry) in the spring game.
Dante Fowler Jr.: Not enough can be said about the junior buck linebacker's importance in Florida's defense. The Gators simply need him to become a pass-rushing menace. He showed up in better shape this spring, commanded the respect and attention of his teammates and delivered on the field with consistency.
Trenton Brown: The mammoth senior began the spring looking like a backup at right tackle, but by the spring game Brown convinced his coaches that he was among Florida's five best offensive lineman and started at right guard. At 6-8, 361, Brown is easy to spot, especially when he's clearing running lanes.
Jarrad Davis: As a true freshman last year, Davis made a late-season breakthrough and followed that up with a very good spring. He consistently earned first-team reps and the praise of his coaches and teammates. Davis has quickly become a leader and clearly has a very bright future.
Hunter Joyer: After very limited offensive contributions over his first three seasons, the senior fullback was something of a revelation at the B position. He showed good hands, even on intermediate routes. Joyer sustained a minor knee injury in the spring game but earned praise afterward. "[He] did a great job this spring," Muschamp said.
Bryan Cox Jr.: It's unclear if the third-year sophomore was just a spring starter or if he can stick with the first unit this fall, but there's no denying that Cox stood out. With a nonstop motor, he forced coaches to experiment with moving junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle. At the very least, Cox stepped forward to show that he can provide quality depth.
Duke Dawson: The "other" true freshman cornerback on the roster came in with less acclaim than Tabor but had just as much success this spring. Dawson is solid in coverage and plays with more of a physical edge than Tabor. "We’re excited about him, too," said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Veterans who performed up to their coaches' expectations included sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, junior left tackle D.J. Humphries, sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor, senior safety Jabari Gorman, senior running back Mack Brown, senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and senior right tackle Chaz Green.
Several other players developed well enough to win consideration for playing time this fall. They were: junior slot receiver Latroy Pittman, junior guard/center Trip Thurman, sophomore safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshmen defensive backs Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, and true freshman defensive end Taven Bryan.
Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.
"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."
The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.
It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.
In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.
Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.
He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.
"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him.
"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."
Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.
"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."
Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.
"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.
"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."
Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?
Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.
"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."
The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.
"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."
Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.
"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."
Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.
"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."
Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.
Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.
Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.
Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.
"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."
"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."
Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.
Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.
Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.
"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."
D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.
Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.
Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.
Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.
"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."
Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.
Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.
"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."
Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.
Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.
This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.
Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.
So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.
"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."
The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.
"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."
Stout defense has been the identity of the Florida Gators under coach Will Muschamp. It has carried the team and its dysfunctional offense for years. But something was off in 2013.
Florida fielded its usual dominant pass defense, allowing just nine TDs through the air (second-fewest in the country). But the run defense slipped from a No. 4 ranking in 2012 to No. 33 last season (allowing 47.5 more rushing yards per game), including an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern in which Florida gave up 429 yards -- all on the ground.
But after a week of picking on the offense in identifying the five position groups that have room to improve, the final installment of this series has to focus on the defense.
Because everything starts up front, we'll look at the defensive line. It had plenty to do with the run defense getting worse in 2013, and it had its worst season in years in terms of applying pressure to quarterbacks.
Florida had 19 sacks in 12 games last season, down from 30 in 13 games the year before and continuing a downward trend since recording 39 sacks in 14 games in 2009.
Battling for No. 1: Florida has solid bookends in buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and strong-side end Jonathan Bullard. Their talent is undeniable, but the production just does not match it. One or two splashy games a season isn't good enough. But UF's ends also need more help from their interior linemen. When Florida lost senior DT Dominique Easley to injury, the threat of a push up the middle was gone. The starters at defensive tackle this fall are likely to be seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, but unless they show dramatic improvement in disrupting opponents, Florida is going to need contributions from some newcomers.
Strength in numbers: Muschamp said the Gators are excited about three defensive tackles who redshirted last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles -- saying each has "the athleticism and the girth to play the position." Florida could also get a contribution from Joey Ivie. He was the only D-lineman who didn't redshirt in 2013 and can play inside or outside. At defensive end, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister stepped forward as backups last season. It's important for either of those two, or redshirt freshman end Jordan Sherit, to take the next step and improve Florida's pass rush this fall.
New on the scene: The Gators signed a terrific defensive lineman class in 2014. Gerald Willis III, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound prospect ranked No. 42 overall in the nation, can play end or tackle and could make an immediate impact. Tackles Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark are highly touted but raw talents who could redshirt but have the bodies to play immediately. Early enrollee defensive end Taven Bryan has already drawn raves from Muschamp, who said, "he's explosive. He's got really good flexibility in his lower body. He's got a great motor, a great work ethic. We are extremely pleased." Florida also signed buck linebacker prospect Justus Reed, an ESPN 300 talent with potential who is likely to redshirt while he adds bulk and strength to his 6-3, 215-pound frame.
Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.
As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.
On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.
LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.
His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.
DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.
LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.
DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.
Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.
A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.
The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.
1. First start for Tyler Murphy: The junior made his Florida debut last week in relief of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first quarter. Murphy excelled when pressed into duty, completing 8-of-14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 84 yards and a score in a 31-17 victory over Tennessee. His performance got high praise from head coach Will Muschamp, and now Murphy gets his first career start on the road against the Wildcats. If he continues to play like he did last week, it'll be a nice boost for the Gators.
2. The streak continues? Florida has not lost a game to the Wildcats in 26 meetings, the longest current winning streak for one team against another in an uninterrupted series. The last time Kentucky beat Florida? 1986.
3. The Joker's return: Florida receivers coach Joker Phillips will be standing on the sideline opposite the one he patrolled in Commonwealth Stadium from 2010-2012 as Kentucky's head coach before being fired after the 2012 season. He was a receiver for the Wildcats in the early 1980s, so he has plenty of history there. The Gators don't make position coaches available to the media, so Phillips hasn't been able to publicly discuss his feelings on his return, but you have to imagine there's at least a little extra pep in his step for this one.
4. Replacing Easley: The loss of Dominique Easley (season-ending knee injury) is a tough one for the Gators' defense, but now the team will get a chance to see how others step up. Some of the candidates to take that spot are freshmen, like Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr and Joey Ivie, or sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard potentially could earn playing time.
5. Kentucky QB situation: Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith left the Wildcats' last game against Louisville with a shoulder injury and spent the off week rehabilitating. Head coach Mark Stoops said they will "keep an eye on how many throws he's making, just to let him ease back into it." Sophomore Jalen Whitlow replaced Smith against Louisville and will be standing by if needed.
First, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken fibula during the win over Tennessee last Saturday. Then on Tuesday, star defensive tackle Dominique Easley tore the ACL in his right knee, ending what was looking like a very promising season. Two of Florida's top players are gone before the Gators even get into the meat of the SEC schedule.
Florida is turning to unproven, longtime backup Tyler Murphy to replace Driskel and hoping that a committee of players can help replace Easley up front.
Neither task will be easy, but there's a reason you recruit, and there's a reason we call this a violent sport. There's nothing the Gators can do now but move on and try to salvage a season that looks to be slowly slipping through their fingers because of injuries.
A step in the right direction could begin Saturday, when the 20th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., to take on a Wildcats team that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 consecutive tries. In a sport with parity like college football, you'd think the Wildcats could have sneaked a win in there somewhere in the last 26 years.
With a wounded Florida team limping into Lexington, maybe this is Kentucky's shot. But you have to think that with so many questions still remaining on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats, Florida's talent will be too much. Murphy played admirably in place of Driskel in Florida's 31-17 win over Tennessee. Granted, Tennessee's defense is surrendering more than 400 yards a game and 6 yards per play, but to come in and direct the offense to 31 points after not attempting a single college pass before the day began is pretty impressive.
As for Florida's defense, the Gators shouldn't miss Easley as much this weekend because the Wildcats are still struggling to find a quarterback and playmakers at receiver. Saturday will serve as an opportunity to get players in the interior of Florida's line more reps and experience before SEC play really starts to heat up. Guys such as Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have played well, but need more quality snaps. Reserves Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. need to get their feet as wet as possible.
It's also a chance for outside players such as Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. to get used to life without Easley. The big man in the middle absorbed a lot of double-teams that created ideal one-on-one situations for his teammates, so Florida needs to learn how to generate a pass rush without him.
Here’s the breakdown:
LT: D.J. Humphries (6-5, 285, So.)/Trenton Brown (6-8, 363, Jr.)
LG: Max Garcia (6-4, 307, RJr.)/Ian Silberman (6-5, 290, RJr.)
C: Jonotthan Harrison (6-3, 303, RSr.) /Kyle Koehne (6-5, 314, RSr.)
RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 317, RSr.)/Trip Thurman (6-5, 313, RSo.)
RT: Tyler Moore (6-5, 315, RSo.) OR Chaz Green (6-5, 305, RJr.)
TE: Clay Burton (6-4, 247, Jr.)/Tevin Westbrook (6-5, 258, Jr.) OR Colin Thompson (6-4, 250, RFr.) OR Kent Taylor (6-5, 223, So.)
RB: Matt Jones (6-2, 228, So.)/Mack Brown (5-11, 215, RJr.)
• The latest on the quarterback situation
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Commits: Marcus Maye and Rhaheim Ledbetter
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After several failed attempts to visit the Gators this year, Florida defensive end prospect Leonard Williams finally made it on campus for an official visit. He arrived on Monday and is planning on returning to his home in Daytona Beach (Fla.) on Wednesday.
Williams visits Florida fresh off another official visit, this one to Southern Cal this past weekend. Most believe Williams will decide between Florida, Auburn, FSU and USC on national signing day.
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As Florida's big recruiting weekend came to a close Monday, the Gators landed their third verbal commitment in the last three days.
On Monday afternoon, four-star defensive end Alex McCalister (Clemmons, N.C./West Forsyth) joined Florida's other weekend pledges, linebacker Bryan Cox Jr. (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./St. Thomas Aquinas) and 2013 running back Adam Lane (Winter Haven, Fla./Winter Haven).
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McCalister chose the Gators over Georgia Tech and in-state team North Carolina.
McCalister is being recruited by Florida to play its buck position, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. Bryan Cox Jr. (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./St. Thomas Aquinas), also recruited for the buck position, committed to Florida on Saturday.
With the addition of McCalister, the Gators now have 20 verbal commitments for the 2012 class.
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Cox, who verbally committed to the Gators on Saturday morning, tweeted the following about four-star defensive end prospect Alex McCalister:
"S/O to @Mccalisterr he gone commit to the Gators on Monday!!! #GatorNation show him love."
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Cox, who holds offers from Miami, North Carolina, Michigan State, Iowa and Louisville among others, said he chose the Gators because of his comfort with the Florida coaching staff.
"I chose them because I get a great vibe from the Gator Nation," Cox said. "I think I fit well into their system and the degree from Florida means something. The academics are outstanding, and I have been really impressed with the coaching staff."
At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Cox could play a number of positions, but Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn already has an idea of how he wants to use Cox.
"Coach Quinn told me they want me to play ether defensive end or their buck, which is a hybrid position," Cox said.
Whatever position he ends up playing, Cox said Florida will be getting a player who will help the team however he can.
"Florida is getting a very gritty and tough player that will give it his all and try to contribute to the team as much as possible," he said.
Cox will join Jeremi Powell (Largo, Fla./Pinellas Park) and Antonio Morrison (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook), Florida's other linebacker commits.
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