Florida Gators linebacker coach Christian Robinson spoke with local media on Wednesday. He updated the plight of replacing David Reese at middle linebacker, the addition of Brenton Cox, the growth of Ventrell Miller and the nervousness of playing in COVID-19. As a subscriber of GatorBait Magazine, you receive exclusive access to this full transcript.
Walk us through options at middle linebacker, who has played the most?
"Really enjoyed the work that everybody's done thus far, dealing with all the adversity that we had, but it's something that everybody's dealing with. Ventrell Miller's been just great. I've talked to anybody and everybody that will listen that he's done everything we've asked him to do and had a great attitude. Him and Ventrell Miller, I said Ventrell Miller, but James Houston and Mohamoud Diabate, Lacedrick Brunson, we've had all those guys in my room and I've really enjoyed the effort and energy that they've had. It's been, I think those guys leading the way and having been here have helped a lot of those young guys in terms of Hopper and Jesiah and Wingo getting used to what it's going to be like playing on Saturdays going forward."
Mohamoud Diabate playing some inside too?
"Yeah, we've been finding ways to move everybody around just because with everything that we're dealing with this year it's the more you can do the better. And he's a guy that obviously flashed last year on the edge and played for me in the middle at the beginning of the season at times. He's going to be a guy that, I expect him to kind of move around and kind of use me and coach Grantham and be able to be diverse in the ways that he lines up. I think that's his strength, really, is just being able to move. You're really never going to know where he's at, that's kind of the blessing of having him in my room this year."
How deep is this linebackers corps? There was issues in previous years with depth.
"I do believe we have a lot of depth, and I think that that's just been great to have because it's next guy up in terms of motivating and competition, having guys in your room that have been in the system for going on three seasons now. It really creates depth, and I know that was a problem when we first got here. Everybody was like, 'Who's going to be the guy? and obviously injuries. And David Reese moving on, it was a great leadership loss, but when you have those guys move on, guys like Ventrell Miller step up. And if you talk to anybody on the staff, he's been vocal. He's on the leadership committee. Just the depth that we have because of those guys being here for a while and then you add in young guys like Josiah Pierre and Hopper and Wingo coming in. I feel spoiled just because I have bodies, so it's next guy up mentality. It's allowed us to move guys around and really see guys play different guys. It's a different mixture when you see somebody that's never been on the field together, how they talk, how they communicate. And I've really enjoyed the way that they've meshed together and really the leadership that's had to come through settings like this, being on Zoom. I've had, 'How do you do that?' from afar, it's we're having to talk and communicate and that creates confidence. I've got Derek Wingo talking to guys that have been here for four years. That's where depth comes from and developing that in the room. And then we've got to go play. I'm excited about the room that we have. You look at Lacedrick Brunson who came in at points last year when we had guys banged. He’s a veteran now. A guy that’s been on every special team and we’re going to have a lot of young guys running down there on special teams this year and I’m excited for them to get their, really to experience their first time out there on the field and really help us contribute as the season goes on.”
Is Ventrell Miller calling signals?
“He’s one of them. But the way we really develop it is everybody is responsible for articulating what we’re doing. If I was say who my leader is, the guy I think captain-type material that’s Ventrell Miller.”
What do you say about Ventrell to others?
“The guy’s transformed his body. I know Coach Grantham has talked about it at times. Guy’s lost 15 pounds, he’s running and keeping up with Kyle Pitts in practice. That’s what I tell him every day. You’re playing against one of the best tight ends in all of college football. One of the best I’ve been around. You really get to test your ability when you go up against the best. That’s something to me that builds confidence. Like Coach Mullen alludes to all the time when you get to go against some of the best players in the country in practice every day that’s only going to make your team stronger. That’s only going to make you more confident when you play in places like A&M or up at Tennessee when we go on the road - that confidence level to go execute against the best that we’ll see on a day-to-day basis.”
Ventrell was reserved, shy, how have you seen him evolve?
“I remember when he first got here - and hopefully he doesn’t get mad at me for telling this story - but I remember it was early in the season that first year in 2018, and he comes in my office. You know how somebody comes in and you know somebody’s upset, something’s on their heart, and he goes on to tell me, ‘Coach, I just want an opportunity. I want to be able to play.’ I’m sitting there and thinking back to my days playing. As a coach you have to tell them what they need to hear, but you also want to give them hope. That’s something my dad always told me, don’t take your players’ hope, give them hope. I said, Ventrell, you have the ability to play here. It’s going to be all these other things we got to get you on. The confidence to fit blocks, to cover certain people. It took that next year, and then he’s a starter against Miami - he makes two sacks and has a big play at the end of the game, third-and-long and go make a play on that tight end from Miami. I remember right before that, we had a timeout, and he said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I can go.’ And I said, ‘This is where you wanted to go. This is where you wanted to be. When the game’s on the line, your belly’s burning. You want to be in these moments.’ To see him grow from a guy, not that you don’t trust him, but he needs the reps to get the confidence to go execute, to a guy that can withstand being in the game when the game is on the line to a guy that is a leader in the locker room, holding the guys accountable. That is exactly what this program is about and guys that do things the right way, that work extremely hard. The day Coach Mullen got here, if hard work sounds good to you this is the place for you. That’s Ventrell Miller in a heartbeat.”
Most flexible defense with number of versatile dudes?
“That’s a Todd Grantham defense. Every year I’ve been with Coach Grantham it’s about creating depth, to be able to be one of those teams that plays deep into whenever we’re playing, you’ve got to have depth and guys have to have multiple position flexibility. That’s the No. 1 thing that we look for when bringing people in our program, is do you have position flexibility. And Mohamoud has been a guy that’s been, when he first got here I’ve had conversations with him and he spoke to the young guys and said, Guys, when I first got here all I wanted to do is rush the passer. That’s all I did in high school, that’s all I wanted to do. But for him to understand in order to create value for himself on our team, to create opportunities in the future I have to go perform in different places and get outside my comfort zone. When we talk about special teams, when we talk about all those things, about developmental program. Can we get guys prepared to do more. When you look at all those receivers that went to the NFL from Florida, they knew how to do all the drills we do at Florida and they were willing to move around. That’s how you create values. That’s how you have a team-first mentality. He’s one of those guys who’s done that every step of the way. We’ve had a lot of talks on Zoom. We spent a lot of time before we got into camp on preparing your mind and preparing yourself to move around and make plays.”
How difficult on opposing offenses?
“I think it makes it very difficult, just like offenses move their personnel around we’re looking to move our guys around that way no one gets a beat on what we’re doing. That’s any good defense, that’s any good scheme. Do you create multiple looks? Do you make quarterbacks have to play bad? That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Position flexibility at a new level because of COVID?
“I wouldn’t say it’s getting too drastic where you’ve got guys learning different levels of the defense. I would say they’re learning the fundamentals of each position or the terms and techniques that have to take place if I’m in this position. If I’m a corner, I know how to play and move if I’m playing this technique and this scheme. It’s more of, ‘I can move around and I’ve learned this and I can apply it to the situation that I’m in.’ I think that is more in the learning and we have more time. I felt like I got to a point talking to guys that they’ve heard the same thing and I was having to find new ways to teach them. I think there’s a lot of positives that can be taken out of how this spring and summer went is that we have more time to talk and to learn. That’s going to allow our players to make more players with the challenges that we’re going to be facing throughout the season.”
What did you see from Diabate early on that made you think he could play on the edge and in the middle?
"Well, like I kind of hinted at earlier, last year he was in my room at times. And so I knew, obviously he's got great ability. And it's just like we were kind of talking about before is, if I've never been exposed to something, it's difficult to know how to adapt in that situation. And so having him, been in my room, talk to the players that are in my room, and knowing techniques. I mean, basically you know our system, we're a 3-4 multiple system, we got guys moving all over the edge. You look at Jonathan Greenard last year, a guy that played multiple positions for us. I think Mohamoud is taking that same approach as 'I watched a guy that transferred here, played for us and was a dominant player.' Obviously there's going to be things I have to work on, but that's what my job is, is to prepare for those opportunities to put them in the best place to be successful. Even if he's not been there his whole career. And that's something that, in the offseason and in camp and basically the OTAs that we have, that's kind of the approach that we've taken with him to get him prepared."
Early impressions of Derek Wingo:
"Love having him, his family, just having them here with him, I mean, it's been a blessing to have him. Loved getting to know them in the recruiting process, and he's done everything I've asked him to do. Just his work ethic, his approach, and I've kind of hinted at it before in other places, was that, he's a guy that makes me have to do my job all the time, in the sense that I'm getting calls and texts at night. I'm like 'Who's calling me, texting me?' He's got questions, and that's what we loved about him. And that's been something that I've noticed is he'll have to, obviously he didn't get a full offseason, he didn't get a full spring with us, but I do believe that he's going to find a way to contribute and that he's going to help us. I mean, with everything that's going on, you don't know who's going to be called upon, and we've kind of taken that approach with everyone, even preparations with the scout team and things like that. Everybody's got to be ready, and that's what I see him doing is being a guy who's going to contribute, great athlete, just great leadership skills. I think he'll be a guy one day that I'll end up talking up like Ventrell (Miller)."
Is Brenton Cox a guy that can move around?
"Oh yeah, He's got a lot of ability. Definitely a guy that's ready to be in a live setting wearing orange and blue. That's something I'm looking forward to, just let him go play this fall."
What did Cox do to get the No. 1 jersey?
"I don't know about the jersey number, I can tell you what I've noticed since he's been here. He's a guy that came in. Obviously, transferring, it's a new opportunity, a new challenge, but I never saw him complain. He just worked. He was on the scout team last year as a guy that was highly recruited as he was, and to have a change in school and come here and not really act like he deserved anything, he just worked. And that is something that, every day I see him. He's a quiet kid, but he just goes about his business. Being in Coach Grantham's room, I've played with a lot of guys that played for Coach Grantham at that position that were dynamic, guys that could really change the game. And I think he's one of those guys that, if he puts it together in the way I believe he can, people will take notice of him and want to know where he's at on the field all the time."
Amari Burney has played three positions. Is he still working with you at all? And what does that say about his talent and versatility?
“He’s the guy that’s moved around all over for us. At times, when you’re a young guy and you’ve moved around, in your mind you could be thinking, ‘Oh, why am I doing all these things? I want to be good at one thing.’ We kind of talked about the beginning, the more that you can do, the more that you’re comfortable and the more groups you get to work with, you’re communicating and working things through. A lot of times as coaches, we want to put guys in the best situation to be successful, but sometimes when you’ve got a guy that knows a lot, he can adjust on the fly. That’s something about Ahmari that I’ve noticed. He’s one of those guys that’s not afraid to communicate and he’s always where he needs to be. Spend a lot of time talking to him and working on things you don’t get at every position. When you move in the box, you’ve got to take on blocks differently than you would be out of the box. But he’s a guy that’s accepted the challenge. Anybody that’s me Burney, he’s just a great young man and his versatility has helped our team the past two years and it’s going to help us this fall.”
Can he make a switch in the week or even in the middle of a game as good or better than anybody?
“I couldn’t agree more. He can do that. He’s a guy that doesn’t get phased by a lot. He’s a quiet kid, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ At the end of the day, he knows the mechanics of our defense, he knows what’s expected at my position, playing star, playing safety, playing anywhere for us. That’s something. We won’t put him on the D-line, but he can definitely play. He knows what’s going on in front of him.”
How has Grantham’s system evolved? How much has changed? How much has stayed the same?
“It’s funny that there’s a lot of things that carry over, but as offenses have changed, we’ve had to adapt. Even a little bit when I wasn’t with him, when I was a GA, he’s just always just constantly adapting to fit what we needed at the time, whether that’s personnel, whether that’s scheme, I think he’s one of the best at constantly working to adapt and change where people might think it’s the same thing. But it’s not. Just like I said with our personnel, moving pieces around, being multiple and giving different pictures. That’s what makes it hard for other people to really know what’s going on. I think this is year 10 that I’ve known Coach Grantham, just loved every bit of what we’ve been able to do and build. And to be a part of that at a place like this, it’s pretty special.”
This question is probably better suited to Dan: you guys are having some active COVID cases now, what’s the degree of nervousness and what do you tell your guys to make sure they're doing everything you can?
“The first thing, just kind of talking about the generic things that we’ve told them is just what’s on the line with how we deal with this situation on a day-to-day basis. End of the day, nothing’s promised, but we want to take the steps necessary to be in a position where we have everybody that we need. That’s just doing what you’re told to do. We have a great medical staff that helps us. Just do your part. I think in a team setting it’s easier for our guys to understand that because everything we do is team based. Just knowing at the end of the day that decisions you make when you leave here are going to affect what we do and how we play. Just remember that’s not just about you. I think that’s something that gets reiterated on a day-to-day basis regardless of what we’re dealing with. This just happens to be one of the greatest challenges of our time. Our kids have done an amazing job of doing what we ask them to do. It’s not easy. It’s not easy in any way. It’s not easy for anybody. I haven’t seen my family in a long time. But the dreams and goals we have, and aspirations, are high. Our guys have accepted the challenge. I can’t wait to go see them perform in a little over a week.”