THE PASS SEEMED TOO HIGH FOR A LINEBACKER TO TOUCH. MAYBE A CORNERBACK HAD THE springs to reach it. Maybe a safety. But a linebacker? In his heart, Jon Bostic was still a safety then. It was April 2009, and Bostic, playing his first spring game, was a freshman linebacker for the Gators after starring in the secondary at Palm Beach Central High.
Bostic didn't intercept that pass—he's not a superman—but he did tip the ball to teammate Dorian Munroe. The crowd at Florida Field oohed. The play felt like more than a big moment in a glorified practice session. It felt like a promise. The quarterback who threw the pass? Tim Tebow. The implied message? Even after Tebow and his classmates leave, future stars such as Bostic will keep Florida dominant.
Three years later Bostic looked around the locker room and realized he represents one of the last links to an era when the Gators played for championships. In the past two seasons Florida has gone 15--11. Considering that the Gators' schedule includes its share of cream-puff wins, that places Florida in mediocre company. As Bostic enters his last season in Gainesville (he's a health education and behavior major) he wants to make sure he leaves the program headed toward the level he saw when he arrived from Wellington, Fla. "This spring," Bostic says, "you could really see how a lot of guys came together."
With two years' experience as a starting middle linebacker, Bostic knows Florida's younger players will look to him for guidance on and off the field. Before spring practice Bostic and fellow linebacker Jelani Jenkins—who also arrived in 2009—realized they needed to become more vocal leaders. "We pretty much have to speak up," says Bostic, who led Florida with 94 tackles in '11. "We have no choice."
Coach Will Muschamp loves the way the 6' 1", 243-pound Bostic commands attention with his play, but Muschamp sees the potential for more. So the coach suggested that Bostic lead with words as well as deeds. "Jon is a very smart, instinctive, tough football player," Muschamp says. "We just asked him to take it a little further as far as positively affecting everybody around him. He can do that by being more vocal."
It helps that Bostic is finally comfortable in a defense. After playing for three defensive coordinators in his first three seasons, Bostic enters his second year under coordinator Dan Quinn. "With a lot of guys coming back on the defensive side of the ball, there was so much more they could put in this spring," Bostic says. "Last year they had to get everybody understanding the basic concepts before they could put this in or put that in."
Learning all those defenses did have an upside: It helped Bostic hone an array of skills. In Charlie Strong's defense Bostic learned to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. In Teryl Austin's defense he learned to use his hands to fight off blockers. In Quinn's defense Bostic has learned to communicate almost telepathically with his teammates to make adjustments based on the offense's personnel and formation.
With the Gators' offense adjusting to yet another coaching transition—from Charlie Weis to Brent Pease—Florida's defense may have to carry the team this season, and Bostic understands he'll have to do some of the heaviest lifting. He doesn't mind at all.
"We came here to win," Bostic says. "I don't think anyone came here just to be average. We're going to go out, do our best and get this program back to where it was."