Randy Shannon’s background molding college linebackers into future NFL stars is virtually unmatched.
The former University of Miami player and longtime coach saw 15 Hurricane linebackers get drafted during his multiple stops in Coral Gables — including five first-round picks.
But the crown jewel of his résumé was mostly a happy accident.
“I was a bad football coach in my early career. We brought Ray Lewis in as a freshman and put him at outside linebacker because he was a free safety/tailback,” said Shannon, the University of Florida’s associate head coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers assistant.
“He didn’t do very good. Realistically, he wasn’t very good. But somebody got hurt at middle linebacker and we say, ‘Hey. Let’s put this young kid there.’ And he becomes one of the greatest middle linebackers ever.”
The Gators hope lightning strikes twice.
Shannon, the Miami native who still looks strange rocking an orange-and-blue pullover, is tasked with tapping into UF’s inexperienced but athletic and high-upside linebacking corps.
With senior Antonio Morrison still sidelined with a significant knee injury, the Gators will rely heavily on three juniors — Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian — hoping to make third-year jumps.
Shannon is doing his best to push the right buttons.
“Randy does a great job with those guys,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
“He has experience. His knowledge of the great players he’s coached in the past … he can recount and let those guys know some things from a standpoint of how to get it done, and I’m really happy with that.”
Since the spring, Shannon, 48, has molded UF’s linebackers into a malleable group, emphasizing versatility and broad positional concepts.
In the Gators’ base-nickel scheme (a 4-2-5 alignment), positions are largely interchangeable, so Shannon simply wants UF’s linebackers to lean on their instincts and not fuss over specific roles.
“We’re going to play the best two guys on the field,” he said.
“We have to play them. It may be two outside linebackers who are the best guys. We may have three linebackers in the game who are all weak-side linebackers. Whoever the best guys are at that point in time, that’s who we’re going to have to play.”
Morrison recorded 101 tackles during an All-Southeastern Conference season a year ago, but with his status still unknown Florida’s talented trio might have to replace as much as 80 percent of the tackles made by UF linebackers in 2014.
Anzalone, a former five-star recruit, and Davis, a 6-2, 230-pound thumper, have stepped up in Morrison’s absence, with both players crediting Shannon’s teaching for their recent development.
“He’s done a really good job simplifying things for everybody in the room,” said Davis, who has successfully recovered from a knee injury a year ago.
“It can be hard looking at that playbook. It can be scary, but he just really makes sure we focus on the things we need to do as linebackers, that’s what made the difference for everyone in the room.”
Added Anzalone: “He’s kind of a guy who brings a lot of positive energy. … He’s brought a lot of different technique stuff that’s definitely helpful with all the linebackers.”
While Florida’s trio of upperclassmen should see the bulk of snaps this fall, Jeremi Powell, a special-teams ace and pass-rushing specialist, and freshman Rayshad Jackson, a former star at Miami Norland High, are also vying for playing time thanks to Shannon’s tutelage.
“[Shannon] is getting all of us to have a certain mentality when we play linebacker,” Davis said.
“You can just tell the way he does it, how smooth he is. How well he gets to know us as a person, so he knows what to say when we’re having a bad day or when we’re having a good day. He’s a great coach.”
GETTING THINGS IN LINE
As Florida enters a critical juncture of training camp, McElwain has begun narrowing his eight-man rotation for the team’s beleaguered offensive line.
McElwain named four players who have established definite roles for the fall: seniors Trip Thurman and Fordham transfer Mason Halter, sophomore tackle David Sharpe and third-year guard Antonio Riles.
“Sharpe is a guy that’s in there. He’s the one guy that kind of stands out a little bit, and he’s done a really good job adapting to the right side,” McElwain said.
“We’ve been playing him both at swing and some, so I think we feel very comfortable that he’s a guy that can play right or left. And I feel real good about that.
“Riles has been both guards, Halter’s been kind of our changeup guy. I’ve been really happy with how he’s adapted to the different spots.
“Obviously, Trip being inside both at center and at guard is something I think is really going to help us. Right now, it’s about the communication pattern between the two sides to see which two guys kind of work best together.”
McElwain didn’t name five-star freshman Martez Ivey or prospective starting center Cam Dillard, but both players will contribute. McElwain must sort out the rest of his options though — all redshirt or true freshmen.