GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida prepared for its pivotal clash with LSU last November, Gators linebacker David Reese knew there was something wrong with his right wrist.
He had known for a while there was also something wrong with his left wrist, which had troubled him since high school.
What Reese didn’t know at the time — along with the coaches and training staff — is that he had two fractured wrists.
That revelation would come later. Meantime, he went on to tally a team-high 12 tackles in that dramatic 16-10 win in Baton Rouge, La., and play in the next two games as well before undergoing surgeries on both wrists and taking the spring and offseason to heal.
“I didn’t want to sit out. I didn’t really have a choice really,” Reese told SEC Country, revealing the depth of his injuries for the first time. “So after the Alabama game, I told them my wrist hurts, and basically I found out they were both fractured.”
As if his breakout freshman season wasn’t impressive enough already when it was presumed he was playing at full strength.
Reese took over at middle linebacker when Jarrad Davis was sidelined with his left ankle injury last fall. Reese went on to start four games, finishing with 49 tackles and 2 tackles for loss.
With Davis and fellow linebacker Alex Anzalone off to the NFL, Reese is now the guy the Gators are counting on in the middle of their defense. The leader of a young group of linebackers — including sophomore Vosean Joseph, redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon — that will try to uphold the standard Florida has set defensively in recent years.
What Reese was able to show when thrown into a major role last fall is a big reason behind the confidence that exists for this Gators defense despite having seven key cogs taken in the NFL draft.
And that was with a pair of significant injuries. Now recovered, Reese could really be set up for a special sophomore season.
He has no regrets looking back, though.
“I was playing through a lot of pain, but it had to be done,” he said of waiting until after the SEC Championship Game to tell the coaches about his injuries. “It was the biggest game of my life. I’ve never played against Alabama before. I’ve never played in the SEC Championship Game before. So I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
David Reese Sr. admits that it’s a “crazy story,” but it doesn’t necessarily surprise him that his son did what he had to do to stay on the field last fall.
“David has always been a super-tough kid. I guess that’s the coach’s son piece; he never wants to admit to any injuries,” he said.
The elder Reese was a high school football coach in Michigan for six years before having to give up his role on the field when he became a vice principal in 2001.
But his most important coaching job continued.
“Every day after school, he couldn’t dodge me. We were in the weight room every day,” he said of working with his son. “What was more a testament to David was making the sacrifice that he did because I know sometimes people didn’t understand what we were working toward.”
The elder Reese had played football at Michigan State before finishing at Eastern Michigan. He knew what it took to get where his son wanted to go.
While the Detroit area, where the Gators linebacker grew up, is not necessarily viewed as a football recruiting hotbed in the same way the South is, Reese’s youth teams boasted an impressive roster. The group played together for eight years in the Detroit Police Athletic League, the elder Reese said, and 14 players from the squad ended up in Division I college football programs.
That includes Tennessee running back John Kelly, Ohio State offensive lineman Joshua Alabi and players dotting the rosters at Minnesota, Iowa, Syracuse, Northern Illinois and more.
Reese was a quarterback then, at his father’s urging, but it was clear his future was at another position.
“He used to be frustrated with it because he was so physical and aggressive, because he wanted to just go hit people. So we just had to embrace it,” Reese Sr. said.
Along with that physicality came a toughness that was apparent early on and might help explain how a guy plays linebacker against LSU, Florida State and Alabama with two fractured wrists.
Freshmen are not made available for interviews at Florida, so Reese hadn’t met with reporters in Gainesville until media day last week. That was the first time he had discussed the injury situation.
Speaking by phone from Michigan several days later, his dad told the story from his perspective.
“What happened is in high school, the left wrist, when he was playing linebacker and fullback a kid tried to tackle him and hit his helmet directly on his wrist. We took him to the doctor, and they said nothing showed up [on the X-ray], and we thought it was bruise,” he said.
“I feel terrible now looking back on it. When they told us it was a bruise, I said, ‘Come on, man, this is what this game is about.’ He iced it and finished out the season.”
Said the younger Reese: “I always knew it was a pain, but it was tolerable and I’m right-hand dominant. I just thought it was just an aching pain I had to work through.”
Reese then hurt the right wrist in practice, trying to tackle running back Jordan Scarlett as he recalls, before playing those next three games. When he finally had the training staff look at it, the doctor called his dad with the diagnosis.
“They called us and said they were going to do surgery,” Reese Sr. recalled. “I said, ‘Is it that left wrist again?’ They said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Reese?’ ”
The doctor was calling about the right wrist, but after hearing the background on Reese’s left wrist, they discovered the damage there as well, leading to surgeries on each side a month apart.
“In terms of getting off the block and stuff like that, definitely limited,” Reese said, reflecting back on what he played through last season. “But that’s in the past, and I’m just glad to be healthy. But it did kind of hold me back [from] what I could have done on the field.”
Following Jarrad Davis
Reese knew he was going to play as a freshman last season. Randy Shannon, who recruited him to Florida after the linebacker de-committed from Michigan, had told him he wasn’t going to redshirt and that he needed to be ready when his time came.
“In the back of my head I always had a feeling that I was going to get a role. I didn’t know how big it was going to be, but he told me I was going to play,” Reese said.
Nobody could have predicted how significant a role that would end up being.
Florida seemed stacked at linebacker last fall with two future NFL prospects in Davis and Anzalone. Injuries quickly mounted, though, and after playing through a severe ankle injury the previous week, Davis had to come out of Florida’s game on Nov. 5 at Arkansas.
“I didn’t think I was going to get in that game. Then Jarrad went down and Vosean came on the sideline like, ‘Reese, Reese, Reese, get ready, get ready!’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘JD’s
down,’ ” Reese recalled. “I just came in, just knew I had to play, and I was just ready. I had been watching film the whole week with Jarrad. I prepared as if I had to play every week before he got hurt. So it was a smooth transition.”
It’s well known the time Davis spent working with the Gators’ younger players, both before and after the injury.
David Reese Sr. still marvels, though, about the time he called his son about 11 one night last July to check in with him. He was with Davis, who had just arrived back from SEC Media Days earlier that night before lending his time to watch film with the young linebacker until the wee hours.
“Every week he’d take time out of his day no matter what he was doing to make sure me, Vosean and KC [Kylan Johnson] understood what we had to do for the week,” Reese said. “Just going over the game plan and everything, going over practice film and seeing what we did wrong in practice.”
He spent last season watching how a first-round NFL draft pick went about his business, and now the Gators are counting on Reese to fill Davis’ considerable void full time.
Because Florida finished last season without Davis or Anzalone and saw how Reese, Johnson and Joseph performed when called upon, there is confidence the young guys are ready for the responsibility that awaits.
“Playing as a true freshman at University of Florida at linebacker in those type of games was tremendous for him,” Shannon said. “Now he’s got to take that next step of learning what you did last year, now take the next step of increasing your knowledge, increasing what you can do.”
Reese said his motivation comes from the doubters who think the Gators are going to take a step back defensively. He wants all of the linebackers to play with a chip on their shoulder.
“I believe in what all of us can do. We’re going to prove people wrong this year. We’re excited to have that opportunity,” Reese said.
As for what he has left to prove now that he’s fully healthy, well, he doesn’t want to dwell on the injuries he played through last season.
But it stands to reason that there’s another level to his game that he hasn’t been able to show.
Asked that question, Reese said he’ll let his play this fall answer for him.
“That’s for everybody to find out,” he said.