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Spikes comes into season as leader of defense

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Posted: Monday, March 31, 2008 12:00 am

In a dreary locker room after a 42-30 pounding by Georgia last season, Brandon Spikes stood up with something to say.

He apologized.

He apologized for being the middle linebacker on a team that had just allowed a freshman running back to pummel them for 188 yards and three touchdowns. UF's defense had just given Knowshon Moreno - in only his second career start - Heisman Trophy hype for next season.

From that point on, Spikes knew his time spent in the shadow of captains Tony Joiner and Derrick Harvey was over.

As for how Spikes responded the next week, just ask Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished with a paltry 93 yards on the ground, and Spikes called it his best game ever, finishing with 14 tackles.

Now there's no disputing who the leader of UF's toddler defense is.

"He's a lot more vocal," tight end Cornelius Ingram said of Spikes. "It's just like being the quarterback on offense. The middle linebacker gets all the respect and demands all the respect. You almost have to be a leader."

Spikes has done more than "almost" becoming a leader.

"Brandon Spikes has done everything - and I say everything with an exclamation point, underlined twice - that we've asked of him in the off-season," coach Urban Meyer said.

And, perhaps most importantly, Spikes knows he's the leader. Last season, Spikes didn't want to take the leadership reigns from Joiner or Harvey. But for a guy who's been a leader since his Pop Warner days, he knew that his deep, gruff voice would have to be heard soon.

"When I was growing up, guys just always followed me - from Pop Warner to middle school to high school," Spikes said. "They know that I love the game with the energy I bring. It's a lot easier (now) knowing that guys respect me and they'll listen to me.

"This year, I feel like it's my defense."

There's no doubt that if the Gators' defense struggles like it did last season, much of the blame will fall on Spikes. But at least he'll know what happened when something does go wrong.

"This off-season, I took time to get the whole defensive scheme. Where guys need to be at," Spikes said. "If something pops, I know what happened. A guy wasn't in this gap or a guy wasn't in this gap."

The first-team All-Southeastern Conference linebacker is almost always in his gap. When asked what the hardest hit he's ever seen Spikes give, linebacker Dustin Doe had to pause for a second.

"Where do I start?" Doe said. "Spikes is pretty consistent. He's big, he's fast, he's strong. He's liable to give somebody a big hit at any point in time. There's been so many."

Added Spikes: "When I see (a running back coming up the middle), I go for the big hit. If he makes me miss, then that's one thing, but if I make the hit he's going to feel it."

Combine Spikes' energy and leadership with his 6-3, 245-pound frame - which is 4 pounds heavier than Jermaine Cunningham, a starting defensive end last year - and it's a not an ideal matchup for anyone. Doe chuckles and says that they sometimes tell Spikes his "true calling" is on the defensive line.

"He's big and real wide," Doe said. "Some players try to go around, some players try to go through, but he has great football position and can bend and has real good leverage. That's pretty much his strength. To be so big, he's a real flexible guy, and he can get underneath the shoulder pads of running backs."

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