GAINESVILLE - He knows the look. And it makes him laugh when he doesn't have the helmet and shoulder pads on.
It's the look of fear.
When Brandon Spikes walks into a room and glares, if you don't know him, it's a little scary. He's 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and an All-American linebacker at Florida. The long hair, the beard. Those eyes that say, "I'm going to hurt you.''
He picked up Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno in last year's game in Jacksonville and drove him into the dirt at the start of the game. It set the tempo in a 49-10 win.
"That,'' smirks UF secondary coach Chuck Heater, "is what you're looking for.''
Spikes is all about intimidation. On the field, he's controlled violence. But what many don't understand is what the senior really means to the defending national champions. It's more than just tackles and loud words.
And what Spikes does off the field could be more important than anything he does on it. Seriously. When this guy speaks, an entire team listens.
Something you probably don't know? Starting a couple of years ago, long before the kickoff of each football game, about half the team would gather for a pregame prayer service. Quarterback Tim Tebow spoke first.
When he was done, Spikes was the next person in line. There are no violent words or vicious attempts to fire anyone up. Instead, all of his emotions and dedication goes straight to his religious faith.
"It gives us something to believe in together,'' says receiver David Nelson of the pregame prayers of Tebow and Spikes. "It gives us something to share together.''
When Brandon Spikes speaks on the field, people listen. When Brandon Spikes lowers his head in prayer, they listen even closer.
How well do people outside of the Gator football team really know the North Carolina native? Maybe not at all.
"He comes off as a scary guy but off the field he's a great friend with a great sense of humor,'' UF defensive lineman Duke Lemmens said. "He's a real laid-back guy off the field.''
Something else you probably didn't know? Spikes was ready to leave Florida for the NFL. He was gone. The family needed the money, partially because Brandon still believes his older brother, Breyon Middlebrooks - serving a life sentence for murder - is innocent.
The person who Spikes wanted to talk to most was the brother behind bars. After he gave the blessing for Brandon to stay in school, the balloon of tension and indecision burst. He stayed at UF.
Cut open the Florida football team's soul and you will find the fire and desire of Tebow. Look a little closer and you'll see the heart of Spikes equally embedded.
"A lot of the older guys they know we set the bar,'' Spikes said of his defensive unit. "We have a standard here and that's to fly around and play great defense, get to the ball, go until the whistle blows.''
Spikes is the guy in the middle, pushing and demanding. He is to the defense what Tebow is to the offense. The pulse of the group. That pulse beats in excited anticipation of what 2009 could bring.
"If we come out thinking we're the big, bad Florida Gators people can beat us,'' he said. "We've just got to take it one game at a time and try to take steps to get better each week. . . . We've got a lot of All-Americans, SEC players, we just can't think of that. We've just got to play hard, play-by-play, day-by-day."
Spikes has reminded teammates all summer of last year's Ole Miss game _ a 31-30 loss. This year's team will come out of the box as the nation's No. 1 ranked team, opening the season on Saturday against Charleston Southern. Then comes Troy. Then a visit from Tennessee.
After a trip to Kentucky, it's the Oct. 10 showdown at LSU. By then, Spikes will know if his decision to return for one more season was brilliant or perhaps misguided. Already a potential first-round draft pick last year, he could elevate into the first half of the opening round with a big season.
But Spikes' concern centers around another title, not his draft status. That means avoiding another Ole Miss.
"I just remind our guys, we can't have that happening again,'' Spikes said.
And teammates are listening. Not out of fear but out of respect.
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