Around 90,000 raucous people create a drum with the deafening sound waves trapped and hovering over Florida Field.
Alex McCalister hears none of it.
In quick succession, 21 other people move about and into place.
Alex McCalister sees only one.
Anticipation causes time to slow down enough that for just a moment it freezes.
In that moment, the opposing offense still has a field of possibilities in front of them.
Everyone is lined up perfectly everything is going to work.
Then ball is snapped and time starts to move again, quickly and slowly all at once.
Receivers break into their routes across the field.
“Cali” breaks free from the offensive tackle, the distraction a slight annoyance on his journey into the backfield.
The quarterback, going through progressions, turns to see the 6’6” monstrosity that’s barreling towards him. His eyes widen as the inevitable becomes clear.
Alex McCalister smiles.
“When I’m hitting the edge, when I’m coming around the edge, and I’m finally free and I beat the tackle and it’s just me and him right there, I’m like ‘it’s go time’ and he got the look on his face like it’s time for him to run so I gotta get there before he leaves.”
McCalister describes the moment with an almost wistful look on his face. It’s obvious; this is his favorite moment in the game. It happens fast—sometimes so fast that the player can’t appreciate all that happened until later—but every moment is relished.
“It be happening so fast when I finally get back there and get the sack, it just so fast,” describes Cali, “but I remember seeing a picture after [a] game when I’m coming round the edge, and the quarterbacks eyes were just like (mimics wide eyes) and just, like that’s cool.”
Former Florida Gators lineman, and former McCalister roommate Dante Fowler, expounds on the moment that’s a staple for edge rushers like Fowler and McCalister.
“Sometimes it happens so fast, you just see his eyes get really big and like the next thing you know, you’re on him. It happens really fast but just to see the fear in his eyes, that’s one of the fun things, one of the kicks you get out of pass rushing.”
Many a defensive lineman counts quarterback sacks to go to sleep, and McCalister has plenty to choose from, as he has become an ace that the Florida Gators football team could count on in the 2015 season.
The redshirt junior currently leads the Gators in sacks with 6.5 (6 total, 1 assist) despite missing the last two and half games with injury; he’s also 6th in the SEC, with all but one of the other nine guys having played two or more games.
The numbers speak for themselves but it’s when Alex McCalister starts talking that we really begin to understand him, because while that quarterback is writhing on the ground from the Mac truck that just ran over him, Alex always makes sure to remind them he just won the battle.
“Nice version,” he clarifies before continuing, “‘You can’t get away from me chump’, but that’s just like the real, real rated G version.”
This isn’t surprising to hear from someone who exudes edginess and cool. We’re talking about the guy who wore Ray Bans under his helmet to walk into practice. Not during practice though—not yet anyways.
“I gotta win Heisman to wear shades to practice.”
But it’s more than the shades; it’s the attitude and cockiness that only someone truly confident can pull off. It’s the swagger that is showcased in every bouncing step he takes.
It’s the XO tattoo as a shoutout to the rapper The Weeknd.
It’s the dancing during warm-ups to Drake. It’s the nickname inspired by Drake.
Drawing inspiration from Drake’s producer pseudonym “Champagne Papi”, McCalister took some editorial license and tweaked it for himself.
— Kassidy Hill (@KassidyGHill) October 17, 2015
“Well it came from Champagne,” explains Cali, “but then it just really, McCalister-Cali, we just took it and ran with it…It just sounded cool at the time and then I’ve got Cali in McCalister. It just took off.”
For someone with such a big personality, and frame to match for that matter, it’s surprising how many games he spent somewhat in the shadows for Florida Gators fans since arriving in Gainesville.
He was a four star recruit when he first arrived in The Swamp with a class that has proven to be worth it’s ranking and more, but even as a high school athlete, his play and position took people by surprise.
“I thought he was a basketball player at first,” recalls Fowler of that long ago spring game as a recruit.
“I met him and found out he was apart of our class and I was like ‘what?’ I was like I ain’t ever seen a tall skinny guy that plays football. When I found out he was a defensive end, I was like ‘what they got tall, skinny DE’s like this?’…I started thinking, man I’m not tall enough to play DE, I gotta go change my position.”
The two do head to the court at times, and Dante makes sure to slip in, “In his mind he thinks he is, but honestly, he’s not that good at basketball.”
But football is where both D-ends stayed and have found success, mastering the art of learning in the shadows beyond a linage that has become a staple of the Florida defense in recent years; because as big as a personality that McCalister carries with him everywhere he goes, there were others to match it in front of him.
There were guys like Lerentee McCray, Shariff Floyd, Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell—all guys currently in the NFL—and then Fowler himself, who stepped into the game a year ahead of McCalister who redshirted.
As Cali bided his time though and waited to formally introduce himself to Gator Nation, Fowler never had any doubt that he’d become a household name for every Florida fan before it was all over.
“It’s hard to do that when you’re behind people,” points out Dante, “[but] I knew when it was finally his time that he was gonna step up and do what he had to do.”
Once he was on the field, it didn’t take long for fans and opposing offensives alike to learn his name, his way and his impact.
During a year that saw Fowler put up numbers that led to being a first round draft pick, it was the play of McCalister that Dante says helped more than most realize.
“I honestly feel like towards to the end of the season, that’s what started to free me up a lot and I could get a lot of one on one’s because a lot of people had to start accounting and had to start focusing on Alex because I wasn’t just the only one getting to the quarterback, he was too,” says Fowler.
“At the ECU game, I feel like I got a lot of those sacks because of one on one’s. Usually at the beginning of the season they were double-teaming me because they knew that I was the guy and that I was the go to guy and stuff like that. But then when we had other threats like Jon-Jon and Cali, that set up a lot of stuff…you gotta pick your poison.”
Having seen first hand what his roommate could do on the field, Fowler felt comfortable leaving for the NFL early and entrusting the BUCK position, which has become synonymous with Gator defense, to a guy he knew could take care of it.
“That was another big reason I didn’t come back,” admits Fowler.“I knew it was his moment, and his time and he could handle what was on his plate. So I’m just happy to see him doing it the right way and exactly how we talked about it… Basically it’s like they needed a pass rusher and he stepped up to the plate, like I’m gonna be y’alls pass rusher; I’m gonna be the one to get to the quarterback, and he has.”
For a sport and game that has become so convoluted and political, sometimes it is as simple as that.
He stepped up to the plate, like I’m gonna be y’alls pass rusher; I’m gonna be the one to get to the quarterback, and he has.”
And sometimes we as spectators, consumed with statistics and flashiness, need it explained that simply.”
Luckily we have linebacker Antonio Morrison, known for only saying the bare minimum off the field. When recently asked to talk about McCalister, he instead pointed out the ridiculousness of using words to describe Cali’s play.
“Watch the film, answer the question yourself. You just need to put the film on you’ll see it. You’ll see what he’s doing.”
What he’s doing, the consensus seems to be, is finally realizing the raw tools he has at his disposal, starting, ending and all coming around to his 7’2” wingspan.
McCalister himself says he feels like he can basically just reach quarterbacks from the line with that length.
“He’s a long guy and he likes to use his arm length out there to push defenders away and then get up under them. He does it well,” explains defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr.
Fowler concurs, saying “it’s a huge advantage; especially like for tall guys with long arms and their reach and their length. It’s way easier for him to get to the quarterback than a typical 6’2”, 6’3” type of guy that doesn’t have a long wingspan so it’s definitely an advantage for him with certain moves he can do, like just certain ways he can disrupt the offensive lineman.”
“What he’s done is a great job of understanding if he’s supposed to come under in a certain place, it frees up the guy behind him or on the outside,” adds head coach Jim McElwain. “Likewise, when somebody’s doing their job, it puts him in a one-on-one situation which he’s done a great job of using his length and his technique. He understands now the importance of the technique to allow you to be effective in your job.
But though it’s always been there (at least in college) the knowledge of its usefulness is a newer discovery for McCalister, at least according to his Morrison.
“He always had that athleticism,” says Antonio. “He’s finally realizing how long he is. He never knew how long he was before. He’s starting to realize if he puts his arm up… he only needs one pass-rush move. He puts his arm up; nobody is going to be able to touch him. He’s starting to realize that. That’s why he’s changed his production.”
On this McCalister agrees.
“That was my biggest thing getting recruited was ‘you can’t teach length’,” says Alex.
“All I needed was some technique and some good coaching. Like these boys, Coach Rumph got me right really. A whole bunch of new moves, he letting me be free, that’s my biggest thing, I feel like way more free.”
That freedom comes from being disciplined in other areas, like in the weight room, studying technique and coming faster off the block. Once Cali is in the open field though, it’s his show and he performs how he wants, even if it means incorporating some dance into his dip around the offensive linemen.
“My little dip, my long arm, I just feel free… you know what I’m saying, a little show money, a little shuffle.”
One day in the future McCalister could be doing a “a little show money, a little shuffle” across the stage at the NFL Draft, because Bryan Cox Jr. says he’s not even close to his ceiling.
“Not even yet. He’s getting there. He’s definitely good now, but I think he can be really, really good. Add a few more pounds and he’s dangerous.”
Someone who’s been across that stage already and knows what it takes is Fowler, and he sees all the tools in Cali to take the same path into the first round.
“You know there’s a lot of stuff that comes with that stuff; especially with filming and scouting, rankings and all that politics and what comes to it. But honestly with the season he’s having, if he stays on the tape that he’s having, and go to the combine and do what he has to do, I don’t see why not.”
The combine is key according to Fowler, who says Alex has everything he needs to dominate the annual Indianapolis scouting event. Add in the tape, and coaches aren’t going to see those few pounds Cox Jr. mentioned but instead the length that they’ll need.
“Weight wise, you’re going to eventually get your weight up,” explains Fowler.
“You’re gonna grow into your body, they’re not worried about that. You gonna gain that weight either way.
They’re going to see [wingspan]. That’s something that you cannot pass up on.”
That’s all in the future though—albeit a future possibly closer than originally anticipated, as McCalister is a draft eligible junior who has produced the aforementioned tape needed for a good draft grade, but the future nonetheless.
Coming off of an ankle injury sustained versus South Carolina, McCalister heads towards the postseason, ready to finish what he started this season.
That means time slows for Cali. Quarterbacks move into place, plays are set up and this Gators defensive end toes the line waiting for his moment to move.
Then the ball is snapped and Alex McCalister springs into action, chasing down a legacy of his own for the Florida Gators.