GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On paper, linebacker should have been the most talented position group in Florida’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class for 2013.
Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin were three of the Gators’ top 10 signees, two of whom were high-profile flips from Notre Dame (Anzalone) and South Carolina (Rolin).
But due mostly to injuries, Florida’s 2013 linebacker class as a whole has underwhelmed to date.
The lowest-ranked recruit of the group, three-star Jarrad Davis, is the one who’s made the most of his time at UF so far. He became a full-time starter in 2015 and finished his junior campaign with 98 tackles, including 11 for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
Now taking on a leadership role as a senior, Davis and his three 2013 classmates are looking to fulfill their potential this year.
“It’s something that we all understand,” he said. “It’s our time to step up. It’s our time to take the torch and play our role. It’s our time to make plays for this team and put our defense in the position to win games.”
There’s no doubting the ability of Davis, who Florida coach Jim McElwain called “arguably one of the best linebackers coming back in the country.” He could have turned pro after last season, but returned with first-round ambitions and SEC Championship goals.
Randy Shannon, Davis’ position coach, said the linebacker has skills comparable to former Miami and NFL linebackers of Jon Beason, Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma.
“He plays the game like he’s supposed to,” Shannon said of Davis. “He’s into it. He’s enthusiastic. Everything he does, he competes at it.”
Last fall, Anzalone looked primed to have the breakout season Davis did after filling in for starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison last spring and through most of training camp.
Upon his return from knee surgery, Morrison said Anzalone had become the new quarterback of the defense. But the former five-star recruit suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second game of the season.
Anzalone has fully recovered, but is practicing without contact this spring as a precaution. Still, he’s looked impressive.
“Alex is doing a lot, man,” Davis said. “He’s coming in putting in extra time and taking care of business. Exactly what we expected him to do and he’s going beyond that point.
“He’s doing what he needs to do to make sure he gets back with us. When he’s out there, we communicate and we make plays. No contact stuff yet, but when he is I know he’ll be ready.”
But for the Gators to be equipped at linebacker this year, McMillian and Rolin need to be ready as well. McMillian played in all 14 games last season and is playing a new spot this spring.
“We moved him to strongside linebacker. He’s doing well, phenomenal,” Shannon said of McMillian. “He’s adapted, he’s done well at it. We’re kind of excited about the progress, the way he’s learning.
“Great things ahead for us and for him, because he has learned the weakside and he’s able to play the strongside. Now we gain two positions out of one. That’s how you build depth.”
After battling knee and back injuries for almost three full seasons, Rolin saw the field for the first time in college late last year and started two of three games he played in. Shannon said Rolin has gotten better and his health is “no problem” now.
“Matt Rolin had nine tackles in the SEC Championship game,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “That’s as big of an event as you can be in. To perform at that level, it was huge for him to take that and build some confidence off of it.”
Behind the 2013 classmates at linebacker, Florida has an early enrollee, two incoming freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, one of whom is a converted safety. With that lack of experience, it’s critical for the four upperclassmen to stay healthy and be productive this year.
“I thought Matt did some really good things toward the end of the year. Consistency is something that’s gotta be there,” McElwain said. “I’ve been exciting watching D-Mac, too. Just how he’s grown has been a lot of fun to see.
“But the big thing to me is those guys now being in the system and able to talk the same language and push each other. That’s something I think is really good.”