GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As much as South Carolina coach Will Muschamp does not want to be part of the storyline in his return to Florida this week, that’s simply not realistic.
He recruited many of the Gators’ key defensive cogs and brought in the seniors who will now play their final home game in The Swamp against his Gamecocks on Saturday.
One who won’t get that opportunity, unfortunately, is senior linebacker Jarrad Davis, who has been ruled out this week with an ankle injury. Muschamp said he was disappointed for his former player in that regard.
He also told the story of how Florida initially found its future defensive leader, after a fortuitous phone call from the coach of another high school.
“Well, you know, it was kind of interesting,” Muschamp said in a teleconference with reporters Sunday night. “Rance Gillespie was the head coach at Valdosta High School and called me, I want to say, in the end of November, first of December of Jarrad’s senior year asking why we weren’t recruiting Jarrad Davis — he’s the best player in that region. …
“We put on the tape and it was the ‘wow’ factor. He’s got really close area explosion and twitch. Very instinctive, very tough and then you meet him and he’s even better. He’s got leadership written all over him.”
Gillespie followed his time at Valdosta High School, in southern Georgia, with a move to Georgia Southern, where he is an assistant coach. Davis, meanwhile, had played for Camden County High School in Kingsland, Ga., a little further east in the southern part of the state.
That phone call proved to be quite a tip for the Gators.
Muschamp’s successor, Jim McElwain, has called Davis the “heart and soul” of the Florida defense and nobody who’s watched this team would argue.
After choosing to return for his senior season, Davis has put up a team-leading 56 tackles along with 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries, 4 pass break-ups and one especially inspiring performance in the Gators’ win over Georgia.
Florida may have been a little late to identify the kind of prospect Davis was coming out of high school, but Muschamp said the coaching staff quickly realized what they were getting.
“He’s a better person than he is a player and I think he’s a heck of a football player,” Muschamp said. “But he’s instinctive. He’s got really good explosive power in a short area. He takes on stuff and the leadership ability, we saw that as a freshman. He was a guy who as a freshman we looked to.”
Muschamp, who coached Florida from 2011-14, could still recall in vivid detail a play Davis made for Florida at South Carolina during his freshman season in 2013.
“He made a fantastic play here in Columbia on a fourth-down play, fourth and 4 play. They ran speed option out the back side, he had the back man-to-man, cleaned two cut blocks and made a tackle over the top,” he said, telling the story.
Many other highlights have since followed from the star linebacker.
Muschamp’s mark goes deeper on defense
During his Tuesday news conference with the local reporters in Columbia, Muschamp was asked about the lessons he took away from his time at Florida.
He answered the question with humility before making sure to get in a final point on the matter of his Gators tenure.
“We did some good things at Florida too, so let’s don’t lose sight of that,” he said.
Like recruiting the core of a Gators defense that has ranked as one of the nation’s best all season.
Fellow linebackers Alex Anzalone (also out with injury) and Daniel McMillian, defensive ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Jordan Sherit, defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark and Joey Ivie, star cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, safeties Marcus Maye, Nick Washington and Marcell Haris, nickelback Duke Dawson, etc.
As for Davis, he won’t get to make an impact on the field Saturday, but he will no doubt remain a presence on the sideline and in the locker room while eying a return at some point this season.
“That’s part of the game,” McElwain said about the senior standout missing his final home game. “You feel horrible for all of (the injured guys). But they’ve been through this. They’ve seen it. They’ve grown up with it. It’s about focusing on what you can do to help the team in your absence and continue to rehab and move forward.”