GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A couple weeks ago a reporter asked Florida coach Jim McElwain about Jarrad Davis, referring to the senior linebacker as the heart and soul of the defense, when McElwain interjected.
“And really of the team,” he said.
It’s shame for Davis and the Gators that injuries cost him a significant chunk of his final collegiate season, because as much as anybody he seemed intent on making the most of every remaining opportunity.
He chose to return for his senior year, along with safety Marcus Maye, when a number of Florida’s other 2015 defensive stars bolted for the NFL. When he sustained a bad ankle sprain in Week 7 against Missouri, Davis fought to get back on the field after Florida’s bye week and not miss a game, to the surprise of teammates and coaches. And he delivered a defining performance that day in his final clash with Georgia.
Eventually, though, he injured the ankle again the next week at Arkansas and it was simply too much to overcome. He missed three games before returning to play through pain in the SEC championship against Alabama.
As much as the stats and production, the Gators missed having their respected leader on the field down the stretch.
And that’s their biggest unknown at the linebacker position heading into 2017.
Davis will get his shot in the NFL — ESPN’s Todd McShay has him projected as a first-round draft pick — and redshirt junior Alex Anzalone, who has missed the last four games with a broken arm, has a decision to make on his future now.
True freshman David Reese and redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson did well in the veterans’ stead over those final four games. They delivered a reassuring glimpse of the Gators’ future at the position.
But who becomes the “heart and soul” of that defense next fall?
That’s one question the Gators still have to answer moving forward. Depth is another.
Season grade — linebackers
There were hiccups along the way — the second half at Tennessee still remaining a puzzling outlier — but this Florida defense mostly did it’s job very well all season.
There were games like Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama where the unit eventually wilted under the significant burden of having to carry a non-existent offense.
When the Razorbacks hold a nearly 19-minute advantage in time of possession, it’s not the defense’s fault when it wears down and game falls apart. Nor when the offense goes 0-for-12 on third downs at Florida State. Or when Alabama gets 3 first-half interceptions (including another pick-6), a blocked punt return for touchdown and a goal line stand that undermined what was a pretty strong defensive effort for most of three quarters.
At points, when having to compete against both the opponents’ offense and its own offense, the Gators’ defense gave in a bit.
But overall, the unit deserves credit for an excellent season, ranking 6th nationally in total defense (298.6 yards per game allowed).
And the play in the middle was key throughout.
Davis indeed maximized his healthy opportunities while earning an overall grade of 80.7 (on a 1-100 scale) for the season so far from Pro Football Focus. He’s tallied 60 total tackles to rank second on the team despite missing those 3 games and being limited against Alabama. His stat line also includes 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries and 4 pass break-ups.
Anzalone, plagued by injuries throughout his collegiate career, finally got a chance to prove his potential before breaking his arm in that same game at Arkansas. Even after missing four games, he ranks third on the team with 53 tackles and earned a PFF grade of 73.8.
Then later in the season it was Reese (76.8 PFF grade) and Johnson (74.9) showing plenty of poise for a pair of rookies.
Star of the group
Speaking after that SEC Championship Game, Davis said he expects to be closer to full strength for the bowl game and wants to leave one last impression from his collegiate career.
Regardless, he’ll leave plenty accomplished. He currently sits at 205 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hurries and 5.5 sacks over 44 career games.
As for 2016, PFF’s analysts credited Davis with a team-high 25 stops (which they define as any solo defensive tackle that constitute’s an offensive failure) and 19 total quarterback pressures along with 10 missed tackles in nine games.
Looking at 2017
Anzalone has a tough decision to make as it pertains to his future. He put together some excellent highlights this season, showing impressive physical abilities and lateral range along with strong instincts, but another significant injury setback surely didn’t help his draft stock.
He could return for 2017 with the hope of proving he can play a full season and further showcase his playmaking abilities, or he could feel there is too much risk in returning and potentially getting hurt again and that now is the time to take what he can get out of the NFL Draft.
If he doesn’t return, Reese steps into Davis’ middle linebacker spot and Johnson takes over for Anzalone, as they did late this season.
The young linebackers showed plenty in their opportunities down the stretch, combining for 18 tackles against South Carolina, 20 at LSU and 11 at Florida State.
The question is who steps up behind them?
Fellow freshman Vosean Joseph had some moments this fall — none bigger than the devastating hit he delivered on LSU quarterback Danny Etling at the 1 as the Gators eventually kept the Tigers out of the end zone on a pivotal series. But he finished with just 7 tackles all season.
Behind him? Well, freshman Jeremiah Moon was a 4-star recruit out of Hoover, Ala., last year, rated higher than Reese, Johnson or Joseph and the 20th-best outside linebacker in his signing class. He was limited to just two games this fall by a thumb injury that required surgery.
And Ventrell Miller is a promising 3-star outside linebacker from Lakeland, Fla., who is committed to the Gators in this current 2017 recruiting class.
He may have to develop quickly for Florida because as the Gators learned time and again this year, depth is key.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of our position-by-position review with a link to the earlier installments.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 17: Offensive line
Dec. 18: Running backs
Dec. 19: Tight ends
Dec. 20: Wide receivers
Dec. 21: Quarterbacks