With the Orange and Blue Debut in the rear view, the Florida Gators football team enters the doldrums of the off-season. The team will workout together through the off season with the strength and conditioning staff but Jim McElwain and his coaching staff are solely focused on recruiting with the spring evaluation period beginning.
With that in mind Gator Country will go over where the current roster stands, what the depth chart looks like, and how the 13 incoming freshmen will fit in at their positions when they arrive on campus in June.
Senior — Alex Anzalone
Senior — Jarrad Davis
Senior — Daniel McMillian
RS Junior — Matt Rolin
RS Freshman — Rayshad Jackson
RS Freshman — Kylan Johnson
Freshman — David Reese
Questions heading into spring
How do you replace a two-year starter in Antonio Morrison? Morrison was not only the anchor in the middle of the defense the past two seasons; he was also the heart and soul, the igniter of one of the best defenses in the country. Morrison’s dedication to his knee rehab and his intensity fueled the Gators. That leadership is hard to replace.
How would early enrollee David Reese look? Florida’s linebackers were thin last year, especially without Alex Anzalone and with Morrison hampered by an injury over the last month of the season, could Reese be ready to play right away if need be?
What we learned
Anzalone participated this spring but Jim McElwain and his football stay, smartly, held Anzalone out of contact drills. This was beneficial on two fronts. First, you protect your best linebacker from re-injuring the shoulder that has troubled him for three years. Second, you get David Reese more reps, something he will need if he is going to be ready to play this fall.
Anzalone’s shoulder has been repaired, but, as with all injuries, his ability to stay healthy throughout the course of the season is a question that weighs heavy on Randy Shannon and Geoff Collins. That’s why Shannon did everything in his power to get the freshman Reese ready. Reese got a lot of one-on-one coaching from Shannon, as well as teammates Jarrad Davis and Anzalone. Davis would lead the linebacker group in positional drills and Anzalone stood behind Reese, showing the new kid on the block what to look for, pointing out Davis’ footwork and technique. Davis also reported that he and Reese meet weekly to go over film and study the playbook. It’s the kind of leadership Davis got when he arrived at Florida and something he wanted to reciprocate now that he’s in a role to do so. Davis and Anzalone are the clear-cut starters in this group, but both of them know that Reese could play a big role in the fall and they are doing everything they can to get him ready.
The biggest surprise of the spring may have been the progression of Kylan Johnson, who was recruited as a safety before making the transition to linebacker. Shannon and the coaching staff actually moved Johnson to linebacker last season, but the freshman battled injuries that prohibited him from really getting the reps he needed. Johnson flourished this spring, dealt with a minor injury in the middle of camp, and then finished with a great Orange and Blue game.
Shannon says everywhere he has coached he’s had about four linebackers that he could count on, five if he’s lucky. Right now Florida has four. Davis and Anzalone, if healthy, could be one of the best linebacker duos in the conference. Reese and Johnson both showed a lot of promise and potential as well.
That leaves the other guys. Matt Rolin appeared in just three games in 2015, including his first start (vs. FAU) and again in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Rolin, who has had two ACL surgeries, missed the first two and a half months but played well in the fine two games recording 11 tackles, eight solo.
Daniel McMillian saw more playing time in 2015 (played in all 14 games, mostly on special teams) and posted a career-high 23 tackles. However, when McMillian was forced into a bigger role on defense after Morrison was hampered with an injury, he proved to be a liability in the passing game. McMillian will once again be a key player on special teams, but there are better, younger options on the roster right now.
Rayshad Jackson needed the redshirt year that he got in 2015, but it appears that he still needs some more seasoning. The two incoming freshmen, Jeremiah Moon and Vosean Joseph, will need time as well.
Heading into the spring there were major questions about the depth at this position. Last year Florida was able to hide the lack of depth at linebacker because the secondary was so deep. The depth in the secondary is nowhere near what it was in 2015, so finding depth at linebacker was critical. Florida did just that. Davis, Anzalone, Johnson and Reese should be the top four guys on the depth chart, with Rolin and McMillian being able to provide depth and a veteran presence.
We went into spring feeling slightly queasy about this position group, but left camp a lot more confident about their production and potential.