GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There was a play midway through the first quarter Saturday that stood out for the Florida defense, that when the coaches review the tape will surely have them particularly pleased.
Not because it had a pronounced impact on the proceedings or was a game-changing moment of any sort.
Rather, it was a glimpse into the future — and an encouraging one at that.
With South Carolina facing a third-and-4 in Florida territory on its third possession, freshman linebacker David Reese settled into his pre-snap stance, stared down Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley and almost in sync with the snap took off moving to his right. Bentley had no sooner delivered a screen pass to Rico Dowdle when Reese tripped up the running back before he could move forward. Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and junior safety Marcell Harris, reading the play as well, immediately followed with the tackle for a 4-yard loss to force a punt.
Reese and Johnson were making their first starts of the season, filling in for injured defensive leaders Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. There was some unknown how those absences in particular would affect the No. 22 Gators.
But not for long. Reese delivered a game-high 11 tackles and half a tackle for loss, Johnson added 7 tackles and a TFL and the Florida defense delivered a characteristic stifling performance in a 20-7 win over the Gamecocks at The Swamp.
“The two young linebackers, well you know what, they’re pretty good players also,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said afterward.
That was certainly the conclusion to be drawn Saturday.
Anzalone is out with a broken arm, so Johnson will continue to get plenty of opportunity in his spot. It’s unknown if Davis will be able to play next week at LSU with his injured ankle, but either way Reese has his audition tape and the Gators should have plenty of confidence that the future is set at that spot.
“I think me and Reese showed that we can play,” Johnson said. “Showed Gator Nation they’ve got nothing to worry about if Anzalone and JD go down because we’ve got their back.”
Despite the shuffling at linebacker and being down a couple of key defensive ends, the Gators held South Carolina to 256 yards — including just 43 on the ground. More telling, 141 of the Gamecocks’ yards and their lone points came on their final two drives once the game was already in hand.
To that point, they had crossed midfield only twice. One of those drives ended with that third-and-4 tackle for loss on the screen to Dowdle, after reaching the Florida 41. And the other ended with a fumble, caused and recovered by defensive tackle Taven Bryan, after the Gamecocks reached the Gators’ 30.
It was yet another sterling defensive performance for this group, but with a couple of rookie linebackers right in the middle of it, communicating and executing like a far more experienced duo.
“The game wasn’t too big for them. The way they got the call, the way they spit the call out, the way they directed the call, the way they read their keys — not one time did they lose their eyes. They knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they executed it,” McElwain said, offering his strongest praise of the evening. “The other part of that is Nick Washington and Marcell Harris in that secondary, that was huge as well. So communication, front to back, and there was a real sense of ‘Hey, look, we got this.'”
Davis and Anzalone took on an advanced mentoring role Saturday, meeting with the young linebackers on the sideline after each series to share their observations and suggest any needed adjustments.
“Every time we came off the field they (were) talking to us,” Johnson said.
Of course, the Gators would love for Davis to return to action as soon as possible. He is the emotional senior leader of this defense and, really, this team. And they’d love to see Anzalone stay for his senior season next year.
But suddenly, the future at that spot looks pretty clear.
“The young guys played tremendously well,” Harris said. “They ran to the ball, they made calls that they needed to make. Got the D-line in fronts that they needed to be in. Heard the calls, played fast, and that’s what we needed them to do.”