Veterans help Gators' young defenders shine under pressure

GAINESVILLE — UF redshirt freshman Rayshard Jackson was ready to join the raucous locker room celebration at LSU. First, he had to take a phone call.

Nursing injuries back in Gainesville, fellow Gators' linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone did not want to miss out on the fun.


Following his team's 16-10 upset win, Davis picked up his phone and FaceTimed Jackson to join in.

"I mean, the beauty of technology," UF coach Jim McElwain said Wednesday.


The beauty of teamwork, too.

Davis and Anzalone had missed the previous two games. But behind the scenes, each were critical to back-to-back wins to clinch the SEC East.

Injuries have forced several young players into key roles for a banged-up defense. Veterans Davis, Anzalone and safety Marcus Maye have remained involved and mentored their replacements.

One of the nation's top defenses has barely skipped a beat.

"One of the things that we kind of overlook a little bit is the interest that some of the older guys have taken in helping these guys prepare," McElwain said. "Calling out things during practice and sitting with them between and actually watching film with them. That to me says a lot about those guys and their commitment to what we're doing.

"I look at that as much as anything. Because sometimes when those guys get injured, they disappear."

Anzalone and Maye are out for the year, while Davis will miss Saturday's visit to Florida State as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. End Bryan Cox Jr. and safety Nick Washington, who injured his ankle at LSU, also are out.

The No. 15 Gators (8-2) overcame the personnel losses at LSU behind the play of several young defenders.


Freshman linebacker David Reese led UF with 12 tackles to earn SEC defensive player of the week honors, while redshirt freshman linebacker Kylan Johnson had eight stops. Vosean Joseph, another freshman linebacker, delivered the hit of the game when he leveled LSU quarterback Danny Etling at the UF 1-yard line to prevent a Tigers touchdown.

Ends Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga, both in their second year at UF, combined for eight tackles.

All five players are McElwain recruits, offering hope for the future of a defense expected to lose as many as eight starters recruited by former coach Will Muschamp.

"I'm ready for spring practice. Can we go?" McElwain joked after the LSU game. "I tell you guys, I don't think anybody here gives us much credit for having some good players and guys that care. I mean, look, we're bringing in good guys. Yeah, they aren't 37-star guys.

"But you know what? They came in and they're playing hard."

McElwain is anxious to see whether the young Gators keep it up.


"Can they keep putting it back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back?" he asked. "The sign of consistency is what helps you be successful in whatever you're doing."

The No. 14 Seminoles (8-3) will challenge UF's defense with speed, playmaking and versatility.

Tailback Dalvin Cook is the centerpiece, but cannot become to center of attention. Quarterback Deondre Francois is completing 60.8 percent of his passes and has 17 touchdowns - six to Travis Rudolph - and just five interceptions.

"The guy can deliver the ball and deliver it on time," McElwain said of Francois. "If you're just doing, 'OK, let's send everybody wherever Cook goes,' you can't do that."

Saturday's matchup with Cook and a nighttime visit to FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium will be an eye-opener for Reese, Johnson, Joseph and the rest of the young UF defenders.

They will not experience it alone. Davis, Anzalone and Maye will be there with them, in spirit.


"It's something pretty special," McElwain said. "It's important to those guys."

Ivey doubtful

Sophomore offensive lineman Martez Ivey has not practiced this week because of a leg injury and is doubtful for Saturday's visit to FSU.

Ivey leads the Gators with 18 consecutive starts and was named SEC offensive lineman of the week after UF's wins against Georgia and South Carolina. Redshirt sophomore Kavaris Harkless would replace Ivey at left guard.