Jonathan Greenard's Destiny

Jon Greenard gets the crowd pumped during the Miami win—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

In the quietness that comes before kickoff, Jonathan Greenard steps onto the field. In what has become his routine, home or away, he looks around, eyes skipping over each seat in the stadium until he finds one that is still empty. Then, he closes his eyes and lets his mind lock on the image his heart is looking for.

After a few seconds, Jon Greenard opens his eyes and looks back at that seat. This time, it’s filled and he’s playing for the person there; not only on the field but in everything he does off, in the locker room and as he grows into a man of whom that soul can be proud.

Here’s what that person sees when looking back at Jon Greenard.

If Carmen Greenard Varnum is to be believed, her son was destined to be a football player.

“God gave him two kisses and kissed his forehead and said ‘football player.’”

Varnum was walking out of a PTA meeting at her daughters school, holding the hand of young Jonathan, when a man stopped her.

“Jonathan was four at the time but mind you he was 10 lb. 4 oz, 23 inches at birth. So at four you can imagine what he looked like. So the guy walking past me, stopped me and he said ‘M’am, does he play ball or anything, who does he play ball for?’”

He was only four, so he didn’t play for anyone at the time. But the man gave Carmen his business card and asked for a call after Jonathan’s next birthday. Prince Foster ended up coaching Greenard from youth ball till middle school and the family has asked the coach to be with them during next year’s NFL Draft where Greenard could easily be a Day One or Two pick.

Jon Greenard waits for the snap versus Miami—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Even if Jonathan Greenard was destined to be a football player, it was always going to be as a by-product of who he is, not the only result of who he could be. And it’s really that knowledge within himself that has made him such an immediate impactful player for the Florida Gators as a graduate transfer from Louisville, filling the BUCK and defensive end positions in Todd Grantham’s defense. He’s anchored in who he is and as such became an immediate anchor for those around him.

“I think Jon Greenard is better at being vocal,” says head coach Dan Mullen when discussing who his team leaders are.

“Now he's comfortable being on the team and making plays and being in games, is a guy that's not afraid to jump up and talk to everybody.”

"Jonathan, he has that leader spirit, personality about himself,” explains Carmen.

"Even when he was at Louisville, not only was he the captain of the team there, he pledged his fraternity and he became the president of his chapter. Not only was he busy on the field, he’s trying to host different events with his fraternity and he said ‘Mama I got it.’ But he did it.”

This has always been a facet of Greenard’s personality, according to Carmen, but it was nourished while at Louisville. There, Greenard played with a class of friends like Jaire Alexander and Lamar Jackson, guys currently flourishing in the NFL along with Sheldon Rankins and Gerald Christian, all together creating a team that Greenard says is one of the more talented groups he’s played with.

There was also Chris Morgan. The chaplain for the Cardinals team is who Greenard pinpoints as having one of the biggest impacts on his life. The feeling is mutual.

“Things that stuck out to me about Jonathan is he is an intelligent leader of people,” Morgan tells Gator Bait.

“His attitude is very, very contagious. He’s one of those guys that you want in the locker room, you want in the community. He’s a leader where, wherever you place him, he’s gonna lead people.

“He was always one of our active people in community service. He sees the platform that he’s been given and not only does he see the platform but he wants to seize every opportunity to give back. He wants to give back in any way he can possibly do that… he came in as a freshman with incredible confidence. You knew that he was gonna be a leader so he has that confidence.”

That has continued in Gainesville where Greenard has become a voice often heard in the locker room before games, breaking down practice and standing at the front of the room helping set the tone and message for the 2019 Florida Gators. He’s one of the older guys in the locker room, so much so that they call him “grandpa” he laughingly admits. And he demands attention from his teammates in part thanks to his play on the field, which we’ll discuss more below. But it’s also because of that intangible quality that can’t be concretely explained but palpably felt. Whatever it is, Jonathan Greenard has it in spades.

“He’s not gonna tell them nothing that he’s not gonna do himself,” continues Morgan.

“A lot of times people bark orders and say this or say that. But the thing that I love the most about Jonathan is he desires accountability in his life. And accountability is only good until the first person lies. And he’s very, he’s very consistent about accountability. He wants to hold others accountable but the interesting thing about that is he holds himself accountable. So he’s just, he was a joy to work with and a joy to be here.”

It’s something his mother has always seen in Jonathan.

“If he saw things that were not going right in the locker room with a player or how a player handled something, he’ll coax them away to where they won’t get offended and he’ll probably say ‘well why don’t you try this approach? This’ll work better for you. Don’t think about it like that, think about it like this.’ And he makes you comfortable with him.”

The same has been true at Florida, where teammates like linebacker Amari Burney have witnessed first hand the work Greenard put in to everything he does. His size and natural skill set make him seem like Todd Grantham made him in a lab for the sole purpose of playing in this defense. But for every God given gift he has, there is relentless work put in to build upon it.

“He brings a lot to the defense,” explains Burney, continuing, “just him coaching himself, no matter who we are playing. We can be playing small school, high school anything like that, in practice he just wants the best out of everybody. He is like a coach for us, he like a big brother, he like a parent to us, so he brings a lot.”

Adds defensive lineman Kyree Campbell, “He has a good personality and I mean he has a good heart for the game. I mean he loves to work. Everyday in practice, no matter how he is feeling, he comes in and works. We just can’t ask anything more from him.”

Greenard though is asking for more, from himself and his teammates. After the UT-Martin win, he and a few others called a player meeting. They wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page heading into SEC play. When Greenard faced his teammates, he scraped the message he’d prepared and spoke what was really on his heart.

“I came here to win a championship,” he told them.

“I came here to win and be a part of another team that puts a plaque and another year on that board of championships, not to be mediocre. I think this team, we have a lot of players and have all the intangibles to be able to go out there and win this for us.”

In Carmen Greenard Varnum’s household, she raised her kids to be well rounded, never losing sight of their first priority. For every sport Jonathan—along with his brother and sister—played, they enrolled at an activity at church.

For Jon, it was the stage that called, using a God-given talent coupled with a personality that CBS announcer Brad Nessler recently aptly described as being able to “light up the whole stadium” and just like he’s done on the field and off in Gainesville so far, he captivated anyone watching. At 14, he won a regional gospel singing competition, making it to the finals in Atlanta and he sang in youth choir until the day he left for college.

And Carmen raised them under the protection of the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

Each part of those verses have been prudent in Jon Greenard’s life at some point. They applied when the young man from Georgia decided to move to Louisville so he could play for Todd Grantham, moving away from a family that was still adjusting to a new normal to start over life as a young adult.

They were relevant when he suffered a season ending injury to start the 2018 season. A wrist injury in the Louisville opener against Alabama forced him to sit for the first time and miss a year playing the game he loves. During that time, his mother reminded him of the verses and what they taught; a delay is not a deny.

Jon Greenard prays before a game—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

"What God has for you is for you; you just gotta be patient during the process,” expounds Carmen.

It was a message Jon passed on to starting quarterback Feleipe Franks when he suffered a season ending injury versus Kentucky in week 3.

And the verses were impactful when Greenard had to make a decision. Should he stay or go? He’d graduated from Louisville and knew an opportunity existed to reunite with the man who first saw something special in the Hiram, Georgia native.

A young Jon Greenard in a Gators jacket—Photo Courtesy: Carmen Varnum

Greenard grew up a Florida Gators fan, something he jokes was “frowned upon” in Georgia. But quarterback Chris Leak caught his attention at a young age and he “stayed true to his team.” So perhaps if it was destiny that Jon Greenard become a football player, it was also meant for it to eventually be at Florida. But more likely, it was meant to be for Todd Grantham.

The defensive coordinator originally recruited Greenard to play for him at Louisville and the redshirt freshman did so in 2016. From there Grantham was hired at Mississippi State, joining up with Dan Mullen. When Mullen came to Florida in 2018, Grantham came with him. Greenard soon followed, helping the two to fulfill a promise Grantham made to Carmen years ago.

“I was talking with Grantham and I asked him, I said whatever you do just look out for my baby. That’s all I said, just look out for my baby. And he does that.”

Greenard’s stepfather describes the two as “kindred spirits” and there does seem to be something fateful about having them together in Gainesville.

“God works in mysterious ways, it all just plays together,” proclaims Jon Greenard.

“Thankfully he was here and that way I didn't have to learn a new defense. Now just glad to be playing the game again; got a second chance and I couldn't pass it up."

He has in fact made the most of the opportunity. ESPN’s David Pollack recently pronounced Greenard as one of the top grad transfer players this season: “We talk a lot about grad transfers all across college football. Greenard should be one of the guys that comes to the top of the list, I mean he's been unbelievable.”

Through six games, Greenard has accounted for 27 tackles including 5.5 for loss (19 yards) and four sacks along with seven quarterback hurries. For good measure he’s also added a forced fumble, three pass breakups and an interception.

"I might be a DB or something now. Shoot. Coach might need to make a couple of plays and adjustments for me,” he joked after the Tennessee win…and continued to pester the defensive back unit about.

“Sometimes he says we switch spots, I get the sack, he gets the interception. He thinks he's part of DBU, we'll take him,” reveals STAR Trey Dean III.

But it’s up front where Greenard has been on an absolute tear. He came to Gainesville to play the BUCK position in Grantham’s defense, a vaulted position within the Swamp for sure. With Jabari Zuniga injured for the last three and a half games, Greenard has also flipped to the other side of the line and taken snaps with his hand in the ground at defensive end while Jeremiah Moon lined up at BUCK. Then Greenard might flip back to the hybrid position while Moon takes a break and Zach Carter lines up at end. The goal, as Grantham has explained on more than one occasion, is to always have your best 11 players on the field. The goal, in that case, is to always have Jon Greenard on the field.

Related: PFF Rates Jon Greenard as One of Week's Top Players

The senior played nearly every snap in the win versus Kentucky, missing only the final series. He’s kept nearly that pace for every game before and since as well. It’s something he’s still getting used to but for which he feels prepared.

“I didn’t start at Louisville. I started a couple of games in. I just came off as the rotational guy. To get all these snaps now is definitely new for me. But I train, that’s why we train hard in the offseason. I trained as hard I could just so that way I would be able to prepare for this moment and that way I can play a lot of plays.”

Thaddeus Bullard, aka “Titus O’ Neil”, played defensive end for the Florida Gators from 1997-2000 before going on to WWE fame. He and Greenard are brothers in the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. It’s why the two have similar celebrations following sacks. But if you ask Bullard, he’s also seen a couple other guys who remind him of Greenard.

“He doesn’t take any plays off, which I love about him,” Bullard tells Gator Bait.

"The only other person that I saw do stuff like that or close was a guy by the name of Mike Peterson who played with me at Florida. And he’s the only guy that I ever saw that never came off the field during a game and he did that multiple times. So he’s in great company as a person that is reliable, dependable and clearly a leader. Because when you can be out there for that amount of plays and still play at a high level to make plays, that’s spells nothing but a bright future for him.

It’s not just the sheer amount of snaps Greenard plays though that have been impressive. It’s the consistent production he’s brung each time.

“If he continues at this pace, he’ll definitely be ranked as one of the top ones,” continues Bullard.

“I played fortunately with some of the guys that were at the top in Jevon Kearse and Alex Brown and you know I see a lot of similarities with both of those guys in him. So he’s definitely on pace to etch his name in the history books at the University of Florida if he can continue the play that he’s been doing. And he needs a few more standout games to establish that but that was just like Alex Brown; Alex Brown had like four or five sacks in one game versus Tennessee and that kind of put him on the map. And from them on, it was kinda like he’s just gonna make plays.

“As long as you can sustain making plays, even if it’s splash plays, especially with him playing that many snaps per game, he’s gonna put himself in position to have a lot of attention at the higher level but also too as Gators that have played the position…Coach Mullen’s always talking about the Gator Standard, I can almost assure you if you talk to any past players, especially those that have played at that position, he definitely upholds that Gator Standard at that position.”

Gators quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson has seen first hand in practice what it takes to block Jon Greenard, something that has failed many a lesser man on the gridiron…and understandably so.

"You’ve got to start with him in pass-protection because he’s a dynamic rusher,” begins Johnson.

“He plays really, really hard and he has a chance to wreck the game. So, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got big people to block him, and you can’t put backs and tight ends on him. But, once you do that, you create some other issues in terms of being able to slide from overload pressure because it’s not like they can – you know, the uniqueness of our defense is he doesn’t always have to be a rusher. So, you can dedicate or assign a bunch of people to block him, and he might drop in coverage and they bring it from the other side.”

Jon Greenard rushes Jarrett Guarantano during the Gators win over Tennessee—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Even when Greenard isn’t making plays that show up in the stat sheet, he’s effecting the game, pushing the pocket or—as Johnson alluded to—taking protections away that allow other guys to make a play. But it’s his cerebral approach to the game that has made arguably the biggest impact on the nation’s No. 1 redzone defense and Top 10 total defense.

“Jon knows what he's doing. He's been in college for a while,” states Campbell.

“So just learning from him and how he depicts offensive linemen, like when we sit down and watch film, we'll look at offensive tackles, how they align, how they sit on their heels, how their shoulder (are). Just him being able to tell us, 'All right, this guy's going this way because he's leaning this way,' or 'This dude's about to pull because he's leaning back.' Just him having that experience is helping us, that helps the defense a lot.”

It also helps senior middle linebacker David Reese, who now has another voice on the field to help him call the defensive plays.

“It’s great so he can handle the d-lineman, you know, when he needs to or make sure the interior guys are in the front if I’m talking to the back end at the time so a guy that I trust, and you know I know he’s not gonna make a mistake if he knows the call or hears what he’s supposed to do, he’s gonna make sure everybody else set up too.”

To those that know Jon Greenard, it’s no surprise that this is how he’s currently playing and impacting the Florida Gators. They’re just watching the manifestation of the boy they’ve always known; a strong willed leader who can “light up the whole stadium” and become the football player he was destined to be.

Of all those watching this though, there is one that is an audience unto himself.

In the quietness that comes before kickoff, Jonathan Greenard steps onto the field. In what has become his routine, home or away, he looks around, eyes skipping over each seat in the stadium until he finds one that is still empty. Then, he closes his eyes and lets his mind lock on the image his heart is looking for.

After a few seconds, Jon Greenard opens his eyes and looks back at that seat. This time, it’s filled and he’s playing for the person there; not only on the field but in everything he does off, in the locker room and as he grows into a man of whom that soul can be proud.

He’s playing for his dad, who passed away when Jonathan was a teenager. The man who taught him the game, about life and about what it meant to become the person he is today.

It’s something Chris Morgan first suggested to Greenard when he arrived at Louisville, and the former has been able to watch the latter embrace the meaning behind the act before games.

“It was just a real good thing for me to be able to watch him just kind of own that. It was just a tangible way of saying ‘hey pops you’re with me.’”

There are a lot more people watching Jonathan Greenard now, with more to come. But in that moment, when he closes his eyes and takes a breath, he can do so knowing that who he is, where he is and who he’s become to those around him is perfectly made for a time as this.

One might even say, it’s destiny.

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