Florida's defense finds solid ground with Spikes
MIAMI -- When linebacker Brandon Spikes was trying to narrow down his college choices, a fellow recruit made it easy.
Spikes met Tim Tebow on an official visit to Alabama in fall 2005 -- then-coach Mike Shula actually introduced them outside his office -- and was so impressed with the highly touted quarterback that he vowed to play wherever Tebow went.
Keeping his word, Spikes committed to Florida shortly after Tebow did, signing with the school in February 2006.
He has followed Tebow's lead since. Spikes became a team captain, an emotional leader and a big reason the top-ranked Gators advanced to the Bowl Championship Series national title game Thursday night against No. 2 Oklahoma.
"As Spikes goes, this defense goes," cornerback Joe Haden said. "Without a doubt, Spikes is definitely the leader on defense like Tebow is on offense."
Spikes, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound junior from Shelby, N.C., has a team-leading 87 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four interceptions and two sacks. He also was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given annually to the nation's top defensive player.
But what the Gators point to more than anything else are his immeasurable talents. The ones they see every day in practice. The ones that make him more productive than his 40-yard-dash time or bench press would suggest. And the ones those BCS computers would find impossible to rank.
"He gets guys around him to play hard because he plays so hard," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "When your best player plays hard, other guys will follow. And that's what he does. He plays hard."
His teammates feed off that, too.
"He plays with such passion that he makes you do the same," Haden said. "If you don't love the game like Spikes, you shouldn't be on the field with him. He tries to keep everyone's level up to his. If you can play up to Brandon Spikes' level, it makes the defense a whole lot better."
Spikes didn't have the same impact last season.
Thrust into a starting role after all those standout players moved on from the 2006 national championship team, Spikes struggled as the centerpiece of the rebuilding project. Sure, he had 131 tackles in 2007, but many of them came down the field after missed assignments. He also was hesitant to be the outspoken leader Florida desperately needed on defense.
The Gators finished 9-4 and got embarrassed by Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. A couple of months later, coach Urban Meyer and Spikes had a heart-to-heart meeting that focused on the defense's poor demeanor and lack of effort. They talked for an hour and a half in The Swamp.
"It kind of shocked me because I didn't know he was expecting so much from me," said Spikes, who cried during the conversation. "I guess he noticed my leadership skills weren't what they needed to be as far as how I approached the game with my passion, intensity and energy. He saw me as the core of the defense.
"He let me know it was on me. It touched me, but I kind of wanted it all on me."
Spikes welcomed the added pressure, not surprising since he was raised by a single mother who worked 12-hour days at a fiberglass plant in Shelby. He also spent the last five years visiting his older brother in prison.
Spikes has experienced hard labor and hard time, and knows he doesn't want either lifestyle.
"For years, it keeps you motivated," Spikes said. "My mother did a great job of raising us the right way. With him just steering off the road, it kind of hurt me and I know it hurt my mom. I kind of felt pressure to ... I don't have to be perfect, but I've got to make all the right decisions and make sure I stay out of trouble."
His mom, Sherry Allen, moved to Gainesville after getting laid off after 23 years at the plant. She now has a janitorial job at a local school, but Spikes wants to make it in the NFL to give her a better life. He hopes to help out his brother, too.
Breyon Middlebrooks was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2003, the result of a drug deal in 2001. He tries to keep up with his little brother's college career from his cell at Scotland Correctional Institute in Laurinburg, N.C.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't think of my brother," Spikes said. "It's motivation for me to try to take care of my family."
Much like he has Florida's defense.
A week after Tebow gave a passionate speech following a loss to Mississippi, Spikes offered a similar one following what he deemed a poor performance during a win over Arkansas. He promised to play better and raise the level of everyone around him.
He started holding his own position meetings, gathering the linebackers to study video on their day off. He started watching DVDs of upcoming opponents -- not only at school, but at home and on the team plane. And he started seeing it pay off.
The Gators went from allowing 25.5 points a game last season to giving up 12.3 this season -- the nation's largest improvement in scoring defense. Maybe Spikes was just following Tebow's lead again, wanting to give his defense a gaudy statistic.
"I just took it into my own hands and took over the defense and let guys know this was how it was going to be," Spikes said. "If you play defense, this is what happens."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index