Two weeks ago the Florida Gators lost its two leading tackles and leaders on defense when Alex Anzalone broke his arm and Jarrad Davis re-aggravated an ankle injury he had been playing through. The two linebackers had been playing as well as a unit as any other in the country and the Gators were left with inexperience at a crucial position.
Freshmen David Reese and Kylan Johnson answered the “next man up” call, both making their first career starts against South Carolina.
“This was an opportunity for us,” Johnson said. “With Anzalone and (Jarrad Davis) being down, they kind of teach us in practice, they’re on us a lot. It was kind of big for us, an opportunity for us to step up and we did.”
Johnson is right; the two freshmen did step up. Reese led the Gators with 11 tackles and Johnson added seven more. On top of making his first start, Reese had to take on the role of getting calls in from the sideline and relaying them to the rest of the defense.
Despite losing its two leading tacklers, the Gators held South Carolina to just 256 yards, with 151 of those coming on the final two drives. The Gamecocks also were held to just 43 rushing yards — third lowest total this season. Jim McElwain was cautious to heap too much praise on his young players, he knows they will feel good about their performance but doesn’t want them to forget the preparation that went into the game last week.
“Can you put two back to back? Right? You could go rub their bellies all they want. They can go feel good about themselves but maybe not prepare because they think they’ve arrived,” he said on Monday. I think the key is when you play well, is reflecting on the reasons why you played well. When you look at it ultimately it’s about your ability to prepare to go out and be successful. You know what, they’ve got their work cut out for them this weekend.”
Work cut out for them may, somehow, be an understatement.
Florida will travel to LSU this week to play one of the hottest teams in the country. The Tigers are 4-1 since Ed Orgeron took over the team with the only loss coming at the hands of undefeated, No. 1 ranked Alabama, 10-0. LSU has outscored its opponents by 112 points in those four wins and are rushing for an average of 325.5 yards per game in those four wins as well.
Everybody knows about Leonard Fournette, but No. 7 isn’t even leading the Tigers’ in rushing. That distinction goes to Derrius Guice and his 881 yards on 101 carries. Guice’s 8.72 yards-per-carry leads all runners in the SEC.
This will be the toughest challenge each of Florida’s linebackers have faced. The Florida-LSU game is a throwback football affair. Strap up those chinstraps and buckle up. Put the children to bed early, it will be a war of attrition.
“They’ve got a strong power game They want to run the ball, you know establish the line of scrimmage. We have to be strong up front,” safety Nick Washington said. “We have to play assignment football fill out gaps and those type of things.”