GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There wasn’t a lot that Florida coach Jim McElwain really liked from the Gators’ season-opening win over Massachusetts on Saturday night.
But he loved what he saw from redshirt-junior linebacker Alex Anzalone.
After having his season end after just two games last fall due to a shoulder injury, Anzalone let everybody know he was back and as good as ever while tallying six total tackles, one emphatic pass deflection at the line of scrimmage and a very timely sack during the Gators’ 24-7 win.
Anzalone and senior linebacker Jarrad Davis, who had a team-high nine total tackles along with a half sack and pass break-up, stood out to McElwain within a defensive performance that overall he thought was “just OK.”
“Boy, did he play good. Man, those two linebackers, Alex and Jarrad. It would be hard for me to think that there’s a better two in the country than those two guys,” McElwain said. “And the way they feed off of each other and communicate. Yeah, I didn’t think Alex missed a step at all. He made some big plays. Those two guys are really good players.”
From the start of preseason camp, way back at Florida’s media day in early August, Anzalone proclaimed that he was 100 percent back from that shoulder injury — an area that has troubled him throughout his collegiate career — and ready to have a breakout season.
He projected to be one of the defensive leaders a year ago before being limited to those two games, and he was no doubt ready Saturday night to make a strong first impression in his return.
“You can only imagine how it felt for me,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s almost a full year, almost a full 365 days, so it felt really good and I was just happy to back out there with my teammates.”
Late in the second quarter Anzalone busted through the line with seemingly no resistance and would have leveled UMass quarterback Ross Comis if Comis didn’t instead quickly throw the ball right into the linebacker’s extended hands while trying to get off a pass.
The linebacker’s biggest play then came early in the third quarter. Florida was still protecting a narrow 10-7 lead at that point, and the Minutemen had advanced to the Gators’ 32. But on second down, Anzalone again broke through the line and this time brought Comis down for a six-yard sack to force third-and-11. UMass would eventually turn the ball over on downs.
“I think it was my first sack in The Swamp so it was exciting,” Anzalone said. “Looking back on it, it was exciting. At the time I was more focused on the next play.”
It was the first sack of his collegiate career, for that matter.
While McElwain had his criticisms of the defense — especially with regard to the sloppy penalties on that side of the ball — the Gators nonetheless held UMass to just seven points and 187 yards of offense.
This Florida defense could be among the best in the country this season, and Anzalone and Davis are central to that projection.
Davis, who saw his role expand last year when Anzalone went down with injury, was as happy as anyone to see him back in action.
“I think he’s on a whole different level. Last year he started over me and I had to come in and fill the void for him. This year he put in a lot more preparation and a lot more time. He’s seeing everything a lot clearer and he’s seeing everything a lot faster. He’s taken care of everything,” Davis said. “He was out there flying around tonight. We made a couple mistakes early, just from sheer excitement. We didn’t lock down and focus on what we really needed to focus on. But once we settled in, he was making plays and I was making plays.”
For his part, Anzalone said he feels more familiar with the Gators’ defensive scheme this fall. He likened it to the offense being able to go more in-depth on certain play calls now with an extra year in the system, and he said that’s how he feels making calls in the middle of the defense.
That communication and interplay between he and Davis was as encouraging as anything else that happened defensively for Florida in the opener.
“He did his thing and I’m proud of him. I love to have him out there,” Davis said. “We communicate perfectly, we flow together and we do everything off of each other. It’s awesome.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.