Skip to main content

Gators Linebackers Look to Lead Revamped Defense

As Florida prepares for the 2024 season, veteran linebackers Shemar James and Derek Wingo have emerged as leaders on defense while continuing to recover from injuries.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Photo: Florida linebacker Shemar James; Credit: Alex Shepherd

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As Florida prepares for a critical 2024 season, linebacker Shemar James will headline a talented group of veterans whose personal success will be crucial in revamping a struggling Gators defense. 

James ended his sophomore campaign with 55 total tackles, which was good for second on the team at the season's end, despite missing the final four games with a kneecap dislocation suffered in the loss to Georgia. 

Nearly five months since his premature end to the season, James is back on the field as a partial participant during the team's first two spring practices. Donning a black non-contact jersey, James has turned his on-field leadership role into mentorship from the sideline. 

“I’m doing a lot of mentoring since I can’t physically be out there doing it," James said on Saturday. "So I'm coaching up Myles [Graham], 'Pup' [Grayson Howard], those guys. Make sure that their swords are sharp.” 

James isn't the Gators' lone veteran linebacker also recovering from a past injury.

Fifth-year linebacker Derek Wingo, who's been recovering from a previous shoulder hurt, has been heavily relied upon with James by executive defensive head coach and linebackers coach Ron Roberts as a leader on defense. 

"Tremendous leadership there. I think that’s the first thing. You’re always looking for those types of things," Roberts said of James and Wingo. "Those are the things that make a difference on a football team. Do you have the right guys in leadership positions that can help bring the young guys along?"

A member of Florida's 2020 recruiting haul, Wingo is only one of 10 Gators left from UF's last winning season and one of four players left from his class following numerous outgoing transfers and NFL Draft declarations over the past three seasons.

"The biggest thing I can say is probably going back to my family and understanding that when you start something, you finish. I came to the University of Florida not for specific coaches, I came for the University of Florida," Roberts said. 

Wingo enters his final year of eligibility as the second-most senior linebacker in the room — only walk-on Justin Pelic has been at UF longer — which is highlighted by James, a junior, redshirt senior and former transfer Mannie Nunnery, sophomore Jaden Robinson, Howard, a sophomore, and Graham, a freshman. 

Aaron Chiles will join the group as a freshman over the summer. 

As a result of his seniority, Wingo explained that being an example in the room isn't just a job, but a standard to keep up. 

"Leading these guys the right way, whether it's techniques or how they're supposed to act or how they're supposed to attend certain meeting or the way they're supposed to present themselves, that's how it should be everywhere," he said.

Despite the relative youth in the linebacker room, especially as James and Wingo continue to recover, this year's Florida Gators team is significantly more experienced than it was in the first two years of the Billy Napier era. 

Florida's spring roster has combined for over 41,000 career snaps and 464 career starts, per a stat release by UF. For comparison, the Gators entered 2023 with 30,150 snaps and 275 starts on the roster, and those numbers were even lower in 2022, just over 27,000 snaps with 262 starts. 

Finally having veteran presences across the roster combined with the bad taste left by a lackluster finish to last season has helped motivate the team heading into the upcoming season, James said.

"There’s definitely a different level of buy-in when you walk in the weight room," James explained. "There’s guys that sit there and shirts tucked in, straps tied up. We’re ready to go and we’re ready to make a difference this year.”

If Florida is to right the ship of its defense in the 2024 season, it'll start with the experienced group leading it. Roberts explained that having veteran contributors will help as the defense looks to rely on the fundamentals it has struggled with in the past, such as tackling and creating turnovers.

"I think there are some certain basic fundamentals that you’ve got to believe in, that you’ve got to preach and make sure they buy in," Roberts said. "One thing that helps is you do that for a couple of years and then it starts compounding, so it’s been going on here. It’s been going on here, but again, we’ve got to emphasize it. We’ve got to be great in that category."

According to Wingo, the buy-in from the team is there, and the culture and atmosphere are good. Now, they have to continue to improve day by day. 

"I think we have a really good culture and atmosphere, guys who really care to be in this program and want to buy in to this program so I think that's what it really comes down to and understanding that," Wingo said. 

"When we come out there every day, we compete, it doesn't matter who it is or who's out there. Guys want to get better. I think taking that step by step whether that's the spring, summer or fall, it's all going to fall into place."

Stay tuned to All Gators for continuous coverage of Florida Gators football, basketball and recruiting. Follow along on social media at @AllGatorsOnFN on Twitter and All Gators on FanNation-Sports Illustrated on Facebook.