Florida strength coach Mickey Marotti first noticed it in the spring. Not long after offseason training began, Marotti sensed something different about Brandon Spikes.
Something about the Gators middle linebacker that had been lacking the year before now seemed like second nature for the junior. He seemed to actually care.
"You could tell he wanted to be there," Marotti said of Spikes.
"You could tell he knew what it was going to take to make him the best football player he could be."
Spikes had no clue before the 2007 season. All he knew was that he was a starter and that was all that mattered. He didn't care about anyone else's role on the team and he wasn't mature enough, according to his coaches, to understand that he was supposed to be a team leader. Coaches intended for Spikes to be the player who filled the role vacated by one of the 2006 national championship team's most important players: middle linebacker Brandon Siler. That never happened.
"I never really said nothing to the guys, and I kind of did my own little thing and just made sure I did my job on the field," Spikes said.
In a way, Spikes earned his starting spot almost by default and didn't fully understand the responsibility that went along with it. Sure, Spikes led the Gators with 131 tackles last season, but UF had one of the worst defenses in the Southeastern Conference. There was no continuity throughout the defense and there was no leader to fuse the individual pieces into one collective unit.
"Last season, Spikes played and he played well but he didn't feel like it was his responsibility to be the leader of the defense, but now he has taken that role on," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said.
According to Florida coach Urban Meyer, that role might be the most important job on the team in 2008. Meyer said during SEC media days that Spikes' leadership might be more important to the Gators' success this season than the leadership of quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
"That's a big part of our success," Meyer said. "It was a void last year. Brandon Spikes is a great player -- could be a great leader. That's going to be a big part of our success, if that happens."
Florida's two-a-day practices were closed to the public this preseason, but according to coaches and players, Spikes transferred his positive attitude from the offseason weight room to the preseason practice field. He reported to fall camp with the physique he lacked in 2007 and said he finally is ready to be the vocal leader the Gators' defense desperately needs.
`I'VE COME A LONG WAY'
"There's a lot of stuff that comes with being a linebacker for the University of Florida," Spikes said. "You've got to be a leader because everyone is watching you.
"I think I've come a long way, just being vocal on and off the field. Now I'm kind of bringing guys up to my level."
Strong said the linebackers are the strength of the UF defense. Flanking Spikes in the season opener will be weak-side linebacker A.J. Jones, a redshirt sophomore and strong-side linebacker Dustin Doe, a junior. According to coaches, game-ready reserves include sophomore Brandon Hicks, redshirt junior Ryan Stamper and sophomore Lorenzo Edwards.
The linebackers, just like the entire defense, are ready for Spikes to be a team leader. How well the middle linebacker chooses to lead could be the difference between a conference championship and another trip to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl.
"As Spikes goes, the defense will go," Strong said.