Growing up in North Carolina, Alex McCalister dreamed of attending college and being a student-athlete at a major university.
He just never envisioned it would be playing football at the University of Florida.
The 6-6 redshirt sophomore grew up on Tobacco road, watching North Carolina basketball. “I just knew I was going to play for Roy Williams at Carolina for basketball,” he said before admitting that he didn’t think Roy Williams even knew who he was in high school.
That changed when McCalister got to high school. His long, lanky frame helped him on the basketball court but it was a high school coach that saw his frame, his speed, agility and quickness on the court and thought to see how it would translate to football.
McCalister had a lot of raw ability, enough to rank him among the top 20 players in the state of North Carolina by his senior season. He received offers from more than a dozen schools to play football with just a lone offer from Davidson to play hoops.
The coaching staff at Florida saw that same length — McCalister has a wingspan of over seven feet — that his high school coach had seen. They knew that McCalister was new to football, that he still had so much to learn about the game and that learning how to play football against SEC opponents wouldn’t make the process any easier.
They gave him a scholarship offer — one that he would accept — and set forth knowing that there wouldn’t be an immediate return on this investment.
“He only played two years of high school football, so he was only about 220 pounds when we recruited him,” Muschamp said of McCalister. “But he had a great frame and he was a very good basketball player, so he has really good athleticism, change of direction and a guy that you project, say ‘OK in two years is he going to weigh 245 pounds, 250 pounds? Can he hold the point?’ And we felt like his frame he was big enough to do that.”
At first, no, not even close.
“A stick,” senior linebacker Mike Taylor said of what McCalister looked like when he showed up on campus in Gainesville. “Like the dude from ‘A Bugs Life.’ The little stick figure.”
McCalister knew that he was labeled a project by the coaching staff. He accepted the fact as a freshman. He ate as much food as he possibly could, sometimes eating an entire pizza by himself late at night just to try and put on those pounds he needed to be able to hold up and play in the SEC.
He took a redshirt his freshman year and, to himself, was ready to make an impact as a redshirt freshman.
He wasn’t ready, playing in seven games, recording just three tackles.
“The biggest hurdle was really just accepting that,” he said. “Knowing that you are a project guy and you’ve got to just keep fighting, keep fighting, keep hurdling that stuff.”
He kept working at it. Eat, lift, practice, eat, sleep and repeat.
McCalister knows the hard work that he put in the past two years at Florida and when Will Muschamp called him out as one of the most improved players heading into this spring it didn’t come as a surprise to him or to his teammates. They had seen him work as well.
He earned more opportunities this season and it’s what he did when given the chance that is giving him even more opportunities and playing time as the season wears on.
“I think he has a better understanding of what we’re doing defensively and also more confidence in what he’s doing,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “His opportunities have continued to grow because he’s done well with them.”
His confidence is growing.
“Just getting those reps and getting those snaps in the game and just getting more confidence,” he said. “I’m feeling thoughts on the field like, ‘me again.’ I’m just on that confidence and working my moves. It’s natural now and not thinking too hard. It feels good.”
McCalister is leading the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (5). He’s playing more snaps and certainly more meaningful snaps than he ever has before. He’s provided the pass rush assistance that Florida needed to prevent teams from keying in on Dante Fowler Jr.
McCalister is just a redshirt sophomore with a lot of football ahead of him. He’s excited about the future because he knows how much work he’s put in to this and ready to take on more responsibility and face new challenges down the road.
“Really, really, really excited about the future,” he said. “I’m talking about the future here, future wherever this takes me. Just keep working and grinding and wherever I end up, that’s where I end up.”
The sky is the limit for McCalister and with the right attitude, the project from North Carolina could wind up being a Gator Great before his time is done at Florida.