GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s incredible how much can change in one afternoon, as it did for this Florida football team on Saturday.
Not only did the Gators tumble down the national rankings and fall out of the College Football Playoff hunt with their 31-10 loss at Arkansas, but a rash of injury setbacks now has them trying to settle on a new quarterback and restructure the middle of their defense.
Redshirt-junior linebacker Alex Anzalone (broken arm) is out and senior linebacker Jarrad Davis (ankle) “will probably be out,” according to coach Jim McElwain, which is a significant setback for a number of reasons heading into Florida’s game this Saturday with South Carolina.
Both were playing at a high level, ranking as the team’s top two tacklers while consistently leaving their imprint on each game. Beyond that, the Gators (6-2, 4-2 SEC) are relatively thin at linebacker when it comes to depth and experience. And also, it was Davis and Anzalone who made most of the defensive calls for the unit.
If Davis is indeed out, the Gators likely will lean on true freshman David Reese and redshirt-freshman Kylan Johnson in those spots, while senior Daniel McMillian could see a larger role along with true freshman Vosean Joseph and lightly-used redshirt-junior Christian Garcia.
“Those guys have played. And you know what, they’re going to play a bunch this week,” McElwain said Monday.
Nose tackle Joey Ivie said it was his understanding that Reese would take over most of the communication role from that linebacker spot.
“It’s going to be difficult at first. You know, JD is the heart of the defense. Alex, he’s had an unbelievable year. It’s definitely a kick to the defense, but we’ve got some younger guys who are very talented,” Ivie said. “I truly believe if they practice hard and we have a great week of practice and we all come together, I believe that our defense will be OK.”
Anzalone, who had surgery Monday, and Davis, who had played through his ankle injury the week before in the win over Georgia, both exited early in the second half of that loss in Fayetteville, Ark.
Reese, who was rated a 3-star recruit out of Farmington, Mich., finished with 6 tackles while taking Davis’ spot and Johnson had 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss and a half sack in Anzalone’s place.
Reese previously had earned praise from McElwain when he took over for Davis after the senior’s initial ankle injury in the Missouri game and finished with 6 tackles.
Johnson was a 3-star recruit as a safety out of Dallas, Texas, and converted to linebacker last year. Joseph was a 3-star recruit from Miami.
“Like they always say, man down, man up. So the young guys just gotta step up and just go hard in practice like they’ve always been doing,” McMillian said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth. A lot of growth in all of us. We all grow. We all learn more and (we’re) playing faster. So we should be alright.”
Florida’s defense dropped a spot nationally after that Arkansas stumble and now ranks third overall in total defense (267.8 yards per game allowed), while falling to fifth in scoring defense (14.1 points per game allowed).
Davis was leading the Gators with 56 tackles along with 6.0 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries and 4 pass breakups. And Anzalone was right behind him with 53 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks, 6 QBH and 2 PBU.
“That’s part of the game. I mean, you feel horrible for all of them. But also, they’ve been through this. They’ve seen it. They’ve grown up with it,” McElwain said of the injuries. “It’s about focusing on what you can do to help the team in your absence and continuing to rehab to move forward. Yeah, you feel bad. But there are a lot of teams that are banged up.”
All recruit rankings come from the 247Sports composite.