Florida season review: Gators prepared for a changing of the guard at linebacker in 2017

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A couple weeks ago a reporter asked Florida coach Jim McElwain about Jarrad Davis, referring to the senior linebacker as the heart and soul of the defense, when McElwain interjected.

“And really of the team,” he said.

It’s shame for Davis and the Gators that injuries cost him a significant chunk of his final collegiate season, because as much as anybody he seemed intent on making the most of every remaining opportunity.

He chose to return for his senior year, along with safety Marcus Maye, when a number of Florida’s other 2015 defensive stars bolted for the NFL. When he sustained a bad ankle sprain in Week 7 against Missouri, Davis fought to get back on the field after Florida’s bye week and not miss a game, to the surprise of teammates and coaches. And he delivered a defining performance that day in his final clash with Georgia.

Eventually, though, he injured the ankle again the next week at Arkansas and it was simply too much to overcome. He missed three games before returning to play through pain in the SEC championship against Alabama.

As much as the stats and production, the Gators missed having their respected leader on the field down the stretch.

And that’s their biggest unknown at the linebacker position heading into 2017.

Davis will get his shot in the NFL — ESPN’s Todd McShay has him projected as a first-round draft pick — and redshirt junior Alex Anzalone, who has missed the last four games with a broken arm, has a decision to make on his future now.

True freshman David Reese and redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson did well in the veterans’ stead over those final four games. They delivered a reassuring glimpse of the Gators’ future at the position.

But who becomes the “heart and soul” of that defense next fall?

That’s one question the Gators still have to answer moving forward. Depth is another. Season grade — linebackers

A

There were hiccups along the way — the second half at Tennessee still remaining a puzzling outlier — but this Florida defense mostly did it’s job very well all season.There were games like Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama where the unit eventually wilted under the significant burden of having to carry a non-existent offense.When the Razorbacks hold a nearly 19-minute advantage in time of possession, it’s not the defense’s fault when it wears down and game falls apart. Nor when the offense goes 0-for-12 on third downs at Florida State. Or when Alabama gets 3 first-half interceptions (including another pick-6), a blocked punt return for touchdown and a goal line stand that undermined what was a pretty strong defensive effort for most of three quarters.At points, when having to compete against both the opponents’ offense and its own offense, the Gators’ defense gave in a bit.But overall, the unit deserves credit for an excellent season, ranking 6th nationally in total defense (298.6 yards per game allowed).And the play in the middle was key throughout.Davis indeed maximized his healthy opportunities while […]