GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators have already endured some notable injury losses through the first week and a half of camp, but head coach Jim McElwain had some good news to share on that front Friday as well.
Redshirt junior linebacker Alex Anzalone, who missed all but two games with a shoulder injury last season and who has dealt with shoulder issues throughout his collegiate career, has held up well through the preseason thus far and remains on pace to play a key role in the middle of the Gators defense.
“I’m really happy with Alex,” McElwain said Friday prior to the team’s first scrimmage. “Anzalone’s taking actually probably more than what we anticipated, and yet his strength level’s there. He’s actually been stronger than where he’s been.”
Anzalone, who came to Florida as a coveted 4-star recruit out of Wyomissing, Pa., is expected to replace 2015 leading tackler Antonio Morrison at middle linebacker this fall.
He has been limited as a precaution throughout camp and was expected to be so Friday in the scrimmage as well.
The same has been the case for sophomore offensive lineman Martez Ivey, who had surgery on his shoulder during the offseason. He is one of the most important pieces up front for the Gators this fall and McElwain said he has “been doing really good. I don’t see anything (concerning) on any of that.”
So that is the good news.
McElwain also ran through the injury report, recapping the less positive developments that had already been reported throughout the week.
Promising true freshman safety Quincy Lenton is out with a broken foot, and McElwain compared the injury to what junior receiver Brandon Powell has dealt with before having a second surgery this offseason.
“Very similar,” he said. “The great news there is when it was discovered we were able to go … five hours after it was discovered and we were able to get that screwed back in there. That speaks volumes of our medical staff and our doctors, taking care of it when we did. That’s probably a 5-8-week (recovery) just depending on the repair piece.”
He said redshirt junior offensive lineman Antonio Riles Jr. and true freshman cornerback C.J. McWilliams, who are both out with torn ACLs, have not undergone surgery yet as they wait for the swelling in their knees to subside.
Additionally, freshmen receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells have been out with hamstring strains.
“We’ve got some general nicks and a couple hammy things that will take care of themselves,” McElwains said.
Bear in mind, this is the time of the year for hype and overwhelming optimism. Every team is bullishly confident and excited about many things in August.
So with that said, a recurring theme coming from of Florida players this month has been talk of the Gators’ increased depth at the offensive skill positions.
Austin Appleby, the graduate transfer from Purdue who is battling with redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio for the starting quarterback job, offered his take on that Friday.
“With running back it doesn’t even matter. You pick one and there’s no drop-off at all. I could say the same thing with receiver,” he said. “We’ve got so much good young talent mixed with some of the older guys and there’s just so much depth. The biggest thing is the way that they compete. Again, that’s the biggest thing that has caught my attention this summer — the way that guys go about their business. When the ball’s in the air, there’s a mentality that it’s ours. It’s going to end up in our hands or it’s going to end up being in nobody’s hands.
“Those guys have really, really taken it upon themselves and this offense to put the work in in the summer, to build the chemistry and the timing with the quarterback and now we’re able to just go out there and play fast and go play decisively and go play to the best of our ability. Again, it’s a thing where it doesn’t matter who’s in the game because we’ve got all the faith in the world in them.”
Appleby raved in particular about sophomore Antonio Callaway, the Gators’ leading receiver last season, and Powell. With Callaway suspended during the spring and Powell recovery from that foot surgery, the quarterback newcomer hadn’t had a chance to really work with either guy in practice until this month.
He praised Powell’s “savvy in space” with regard to the slot receiver’s ability to find openings in coverage.
But more than anything, it has been the depth at that position that has stood out to Appleby.
“Again, there’s so many guys it just doesn’t matter,” he said. “You just go in there, you trust your receivers, you trust your guys. Half the time we don’t even know who’s in. We get our play, we trust our roles, we read our progression, whoever it happens to be, ‘Oh, it’s Dre (Massey), oh it’s BP, it’s C.J. (Worton), it’s Ahmad (Fulwood),’ it doesn’t matter.”
Del Rio seconded that praise, adding a few more names to the list.
“The wideouts have done a really good job,” he said. “Freddie (Swain), Josh (Hammond), Dre (Massey), Tyrie and Rick are injured right now, but they’ve done a really good job staying focused off the field, which is really hard, especially when you’re a freshman. All you want to do is play and then you get here and you can’t play. They’ve done a really good job staying mentally locked in and that will take them a long way.”
A different look
Del Rio had an interesting take on how the offense looks different heading into McElwain’s second season compared to this time last year.
“It feels like a completely different team to be honest,” Del Rio said. “There were a lot of (Will) Muschamp guys last year and they are good guys, but Coach Mac looks for certain types of guys and he’s done a good of recruiting them. …
“They are different offenses. Coach Mac uses a lot of formations. We are in the gun, in pistol. I can’t say there are taller wideouts or faster wideouts, just guys that he thinks fit into the system.”
Redshirt-senior safety Marcus Maye offered his impressions of the young defensive players standing out in camp so far.
Perhaps most encouraging in his comments was his praise for redshirt junior Marcell Harris, who has been in the program for a few years now but is competing with fellow redshirt-junior Nick Washington for a bigger role this fall.
“He’s communicating very well. He’s running around making plays. He’s doing a lot of things in the secondary that are good that we’re going to need,” Maye said. “Just seeing him be more comfortable back there and competing every day is definitely good.”
Maye also highlighted a few true freshmen in defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr., who has been mentioned quite a bit this preseason, along with linebacker Vosean Joseph and defensive ends Antonneous Clayton and Jordan Smith.
“They’re definitely going to help us,” he said.
For those who have always wondered what song McElwain would choose to perform at karaoke — if he found himself in such a position, that is — there is now an answer.
McElwain usually starts his press conferences with some playful banter, and on Friday he mentioned that he does a good rendition of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
McElwain also had a humorous response when asked his thoughts on junior cornerback Jalen Tabor preferring to go by “Teez.”
“Is he the ‘cornerback formerly known as …’?” McElwain joked with a reference to Prince. “… Since I’ve been here that’s what they call him. But they call me Mac. I guess I could change that. Mom and dad would probably be angry with me if I changed my last name.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.