The Florida Gators recruiting landscape has been a whirlwind since the Dan Mullen era began in Gainesville prior to the 2018 season.
Despite landing a handful of talented prospects in their first four cycles, the staff has struggled to build classes from top to bottom, resulting in scrutiny from those on the outside looking in at the program. While the 2022 Gators class has shown little indication that the tide is set to shift this cycle, one particular area of need has shown promise.
On August 16, South Georgia linebacker EJ Lightsey announced his commitment to the University of Florida, sealing the deal after considerable flirtation between the two parties throughout his recruitment.
Joining Shemar James — SI All-American’s 18th overall prospect and second-ranked linebacker in 2022 — at the Gators second level, Lightsey replenishes a position that has experienced ebbs and flows in production the past few years.
Securing James and Lightsey to rep the orange and blue, linebackers coach Christian Robinson’s acquisition of promising talent pits the Gators second level in a favorable position for the future.
With Lightsey being the latest defensive addition to the commitment class, AllGators is here to break down what the future UF linebacker does well and how he will fit into defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme upon entry.
The jaw-dropping attribute that pits Lightsey as a valuable piece in the Gators 2022 recruiting class is his elite athleticism in the middle of the Fitzgerald defense.
Recording a 4.6 40-yard dash at a Florida recruiting camp, Lightsey would currently out-test a plethora of linebackers moving from college to the NFL, ranking in the 79th percentile per MockDraftable.
Showcasing his speed on his 18-plus minute junior season film, the Gators commit excels when working in free-range towards the ball, whether as a pass rusher or against the run.
Synonymous with making stops behind the line of scrimmage, Lightsey's ability to eliminate space sticks out as his most valuable asset, one that spawns from his considerable burst off the ball at the snap and angling to track down ball carriers.
What sets Lightsey apart from other athletic, off-ball linebackers is his flashes of moving horizontally instead of vertically when needed.
In many instances, athletic but unpolished linebackers at the high school level tend to neglect the technical aspects of the game in an attempt to make flashy tackles for loss. Instead, the outcome of their overcompensation results in players pushing too far upfield and consequently take themselves out of the play, especially when responsible for contain.
However, Lightsey shows the required maturity to selflessly fill run gaps to redirect ball carriers to his teammates and sometimes right into his arms.
Flashing as a coverage man — making the most of being in the right place at the right time — Lightsey has the overall athleticism to stay step-for-step with the players he will be asked to line up against at the college level. Still, his inexperience dropping back creates room for him to improve his comfortability in both man and zone coverages.
An intriguing aspect of Lightsey's game is hard to pinpoint into a traditional category. Excelling when called to flush quarterbacks out of the pocket in blitz packages and track down ball carriers in the backfield, Lightsey proves to be, simply, disruptive.
As a prime example of the relentless effort mantra the Florida staff has harped on since 2018, Lightsey plays with a high motor and much-needed energy at the second level.
Making an impact on the game in several different ways, Lightsey's ability to blow plays up down at the line of scrimmage makes him a coveted member of the Gators class. Playing instinctually, Lightsey has shown a knack for navigating through traffic at the line to pinpoint the ball carrier easily.
Despite his size, the 210-pounder shows a slipperiness to work through would-be blockers to make plays at or behind the line. Possessing fluid hips to make eliminate the contact point and strong hands to swipe away blockers, Lightsey makes it difficult to keep him out of the play.
While there are no official stats from Lightsey's high school career, the numbers in the tackles for loss and sacks columns are bountiful.
In a complicated defensive scheme that consists of aggressive tendencies, Lightsey's role for his high school has prepared him for the loads of information set to be thrown his way when he makes his way to Gainesville as part of the 2022 class.
Playing in a blitz-heavy defensive scheme at Fitzgerald, Lightsey has proved an ideal option for creating pressure on the quarterback when called upon.
Possessing positional versatility both from the middle and edge, Lightsey holds a key component that players Grantham's scheme needs to succeed individually as he can be strategically placed around the lineup, plus his previous experience operating in a highly aggressive play-calling environment.
For his base role, set to play alongside Shemar James in a predominantly nickel formation, Lightsey is slated to see time at MIKE — given the lack of a true middle linebacker on the roster at the moment — while James occupies the weakside at MONEY.
If the Gators were looking for a well-built and athletic option to let loose in their linebacking corps in the next few years, they found that and more in the underrated Fitzgerald (Ga.) High School prospect.
Already carrying a muscular frame at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds — especially in his lower half from a strength standpoint (benching 405 pounds) — Lightsey’s current makeup suggests he can undergo a smooth bodily transition to be game-ready sooner rather than later at the college level.
Holding offers from Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Miami and Florida State, the interest in Lightsey’s services speak volumes for the playmaking he can provide a defense at the next level.
While his impact defensively will come in the later years of his Florida career, Lightsey’s progression will be one to watch as he works under the expertise of strength coach Nick Savage.
Until then, Lightsey will get an opportunity to earn his reps and make a splash in the third phase of the game as a special teams ace in his limited underclassmen appearances.
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