Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Brandon Spikes came back to Florida for all the right reasons.
He's on track to get his degree. He wanted another year of college football to fine-tune his game and couldn't bear the thought of bailing on Tim Tebow and the rest of the guys he came to Florida with in 2006.
And if you're into winning championships, which Spikes certainly is, the lure of winning a third BCS national title can also be mighty persuasive.
Still, had it not been for the advice of Spikes' older brother, Breyon Middlebrooks, the same brother currently serving a life sentence without parole in a North Carolina prison, Spikes would probably be getting ready for the NFL draft right now instead of winding down spring practice with the Gators.
Middlebrooks, convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 for his role in a drug deal gone bad, implored his younger brother to make the best decision for him ... and nobody else.
That included Middlebrooks.
"It really took a lot of pressure off of me when he said that," said Spikes, who was to the Florida defense last season what Tebow was to the offense. "I thought he might try and tell me to do this and do that. But my brother has never been a selfish person. I've always respected that about him. He had his chance. He was a great football player, a great athlete, but took a different road. He's told me to learn from his mistakes, and I have."
Much of Spikes' motivation to turn pro would have been financially driven in order to retain an attorney to help his brother get in front of another appellate court.
Middlebrooks' first murder trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial in 2003. An appeal in 2005 was denied. Middlebrooks has admitted that he was at the scene where the drug deal went down, but contends that he wasn't the shooter and the murder was an accident.
Spikes, who talks to his brother by phone, knows that reversing the conviction is a long shot. But he's not giving up hope.
As he went back and forth this past January on whether or not he should turn pro, Spikes couldn't get the image of his brother confined to that tiny jail cell out of his head.
That's when he made the call that ultimately led him back to Florida.
"I asked him what he wanted me to do," recounted Spikes, who was projected as a first-round pick by NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "He just told me that he didn't want me to base my decision on him. I think people know that I play this game to try and help out my brother and my family one day financially. But when I heard that, I knew it wasn't the right time and went with my heart.
"Everything happens for a reason, so I'm here, happy, playing to get better and playing for another championship."
The 6-foot-3, 258-pound Spikes was one of the best linebackers in the country a year ago. He led the Gators with 93 total tackles and also intercepted four passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He was a consensus first-team All-American and the kind of player that set the tone with everything he did.
"He knows that we go as he goes," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "The guys on this defense follow his lead."
It's a responsibility that Spikes didn't fully take to heart until last season.
As a sophomore, he racked up 131 total tackles and became the first underclassman to earn first-team All-SEC honors at linebacker from the coaches since 1999. But it was more: He did his thing and everybody else did their thing.
Following the spring game last season, Florida coach Urban Meyer sat down with Spikes and told him he had to be more of a leader if the Gators were going to recover from their poor showing defensively in 2007.
"I guess it's really something I didn't understand or just shied away from at first," Spikes said. "I knew I was a playmaker. But ever since I've been small, people have been telling me the same thing, that the team's going to go as I go and that guys are going to fall in behind me.
"I don't know that I really believed it, though, until I got to the college level and especially last year. I just thought people were telling me that. But here, there's a bunch of grown men out there. You see them following your lead, and you know it's serious. They see how I play with so much energy and how crazy I get out there, and it just sort of rubs off."
It wasn't just on the field, either.
Spikes routinely called players-only meetings and went out of his way to make sure guys were bonding away from football.
As for getting his message across, he's a pretty vocal person. But he also has a steely-eyed glare about him that doesn't require a whole lot of words.
"He's got enough energy for the whole team," junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "If you're not playing with that same kind of energy or practicing with that same kind of energy, you're going to hear about it. A lot of times, he doesn't even have to say anything."
During games, Spikes is a renowned talker.
One of his favorite ploys is to tee off on an opposing player with a punishing tackle and then remind him that the next hit is going to be even worse.
Case in point: His pile-drive of Georgia's Knowshon Moreno on the second play of the game last season in Jacksonville. Moreno, who had shredded Florida for 188 yards and three touchdowns the year before, was never the same.
And neither were the Bulldogs.
Meyer called it the play of the year for the Gators, who went on to crush the Bulldogs 49-10.
Spikes' message to Moreno was short and sweet as the two lay on the ground, helmet to helmet.
"I'm going to be here all day," Spikes barked.
It was the start of a suffocating defensive run by Florida that culminated with a 24-14 win over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.
With virtually everybody returning on defense who made a play last season for the Gators, Spikes insists there's another level for this defense.
He said the same goes for him.
"I have to get more disciplined," Spikes said. "I made a lot of plays last year not even using the right technique. I guess I never really paid a lot of attention to the details before, but that's what will make me a better player, being more disciplined and being better with the fundamentals.
"We're going to go even harder this year, because we know people are goin
g to come harder after us. If people think we're going to get complacent, then they can think again. That's not the way we do things around here."