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Wednesday, January 19, 2022
<p>Alex Anzalone (34) and CeCe Jefferson (96) motion to the crowd during Florida's 13-6 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 1 in Nashville. "He doesn't hold anything back," linebacker Jarrad Davis said of Anzalone. "He lets everything go, and that's what we want from our teammates."</p>

Alex Anzalone (34) and CeCe Jefferson (96) motion to the crowd during Florida's 13-6 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 1 in Nashville. "He doesn't hold anything back," linebacker Jarrad Davis said of Anzalone. "He lets everything go, and that's what we want from our teammates."

Alex Anzalone stands at the 46-yard line during Florida’s season opener against Massachusetts, the first live game he’s played in almost a year.

In the second quarter of a tied ballgame, the linebacker’s eyes fix on UMass quarterback Ross Comis. Anzalone crouches 3 yards from the line of scrimmage, his hands close to his knees.

Anzalone’s stance tips his hand: He’s going to blitz.

Comis plants his foot in the rain-dampened grass. Anzalone raises his right hand and inches forward. Comis takes the snap. Anzalone charges ahead.

The quarterback drops back and scans his options down the field while the linebacker rushes through the middle of the trenches unscathed, no offensive linemen blocking his path.

By the time Comis rotates his arm forward and releases the ball, Anzalone is already in the air and in the quarterback’s face.

Anzalone swats the pass to the ground and then shouts as he extends his arms outward.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Anzalone said after the game, a sense of relief washed over him.

And with the Gators at the halfway point of the regular season and Anzalone already racking up career-best marks in nearly every category possible, the former high school star from a small town in Pennsylvania does not plan on slowing down in a make-or-break season for the redshirt junior.

Not after the way his first three years played out.

Not with the lack of depth Florida has at linebacker.

And not with the expectations he has yet to fulfill since arriving in Gainesville.

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‘He doesn’t hold anything back’

At 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, Anzalone has the size of the prototypical linebacker.

But with cascading blond hair that he hasn’t trimmed in two years flowing down to his shoulders, the 21-year-old is a real-life Thor when he puts on his jersey and shoulder pads.

But he doesn’t need a hammer made from the Asgardian metal uru to obtain the brute strength to bring opposing running backs and quarterbacks to the ground. He does that easily enough with his bare hands.

“It’s definitely intimidating,” said Justin Causa, a high school teammate and childhood friend of Anzalone’s.

But Anzalone’s superhuman looks aren’t the only thing opponents should fear when he charges full speed at them.

He knows the game. He anticipates where each play is going before it even begins, information he passes to his teammates by combining a slew of code words that translate to an in-game audible.

“He gives us all the calls, lines us up,” UF defensive lineman Taven Bryan said. “He’s quick, he’s snappy.”

He flies to the ball, bouncing past offensive linemen when he’s rushing the quarterback or sprinting to the sidelines when he’s chasing down a running back off the edge.

And then, when he firmly has his opponent in his grasp, Anzalone pummels him to the ground, celebrates for a quick moment and then returns to the huddle for the next play.

“He doesn’t hold anything back,” said UF linebacker Jarrad Davis.

“He lets everything go, and that’s what we want from our teammates, what I want from a linebacker playing with me.”

Championship mentality

A perfect senior high school season hinged on one play.

Wyomissing Area High faced Imhotep Charter in the 2012 Pennsylvania Class 2A state semifinals, with Anzalone’s Wyomissing team coming in as the heavy underdog.

Late in the game, Anzalone and his Wyomissing defense were pressed back to their own goal line. Imhotep Charter turned to its running back, South Carolina commit David Williams, to surge into the end zone.

Thud.

“Alex just lit him up,” Wyomissing coach Bob Wolfrum recalled. “The whole place just went crazy.”

Wyomissing won the game 35-13. One week later, the Spartans gutted out a 17-14 victory over Aliquippa for the school’s first state championship.

Anzalone would end up being named the area’s small school player of the year.

“He just always seemed to come up with the big play,” Wolfrum said, “especially when the chips were down.”

One month after hoisting the state title, Anzalone, the fourth-ranked outside linebacker in the 2013 recruiting class according to 247sports.com, flipped his college commitment from Notre Dame to UF and enrolled early in Gainesville.

It was the conclusion of a three-year journey, one that saw him evolve from an undersized-yet-capable linebacker when he joined the Wyomissing team as a sophomore to a blue-chip prospect.

He worked with a nutritionist the summer before his junior year to gain close to 60 pounds in three months and began to look like a college football player.

By his senior year, he had 30 Football Bowl Subdivision programs begging him to join their team.

He held offers from home state schools such as Penn State and Temple to perennial college football powerhouses in Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

“He was very well respected,” Wolfrum said. “It wasn’t just because he was a good football player, but also because of how dedicated he was to making himself bigger, faster and stronger.”

Off the field, though, Anzalone remained reserved, Wolfrum said.

The linebacker’s voice is quiet when he talks, if he talks at all. He’s the antithesis of what one would expect from someone who plays as ferociously as he does in the game.

He doesn’t bask in the glory or praise himself whenever he receives an accolade or sets a career high.

“He wasn’t the loud guy you might expect out of the big high school star that had Division I coaches flying in to see him all the time,” Wolfrum said.

And now, he has gone from playing football in a town with a population of about 10,500 to playing for a Southeastern Conference school with home games in a stadium that comfortably seats eight times that population.

“He’s always been dedicated to being the best that he can be,” Causa said.

“He never took his mind off of that ever since high school. He knew he wanted to play at the biggest level he could play.”

Bittersweet start

Anzalone’s junior year at UF was supposed to be the breakout season.

He led the defense throughout Spring camp. He started middle linebacker. He called the shots.

“There was debate that he might be one of the best players on our football team,” UF defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said.

He played in two games. A shoulder injury against East Carolina on Sept. 12, 2015, relegated him to the sideline for the rest of the season and forced him to be a spectator for Florida’s newfound success under first-year head coach Jim McElwain.

Ten wins. An SEC East title. A resurgence in the fan base.

All Anzalone could do was watch.

McElwain and the training staff shut him down for the final 12 games. They took the slow-and-steady route with Anzalone’s rehab — the “duct tape instead of Gorilla glue” approach, as McElwain prefers to call it.

“Last year was pretty tough for me and just kinda bittersweet,” Anzalone said.

But it wasn’t just last season.

He battled a lingering shoulder injury during his freshman season as well, limiting him to special teams duties.

The next year, he faced a battle to climb the depth chart as a sophomore once he was healthy. He didn’t win.

All in all, he had 22 tackles in his first 23 games.

With time to reflect last season, Anzalone decided to make an impact behind the scenes.

He remained active in practice, in the film room, in position meetings.

“He just always stayed positive,” said defensive lineman Joey Ivie, Anzalone’s roommate last season.

“He just knew that he was going to come back and be OK.”

His presence permeated to the rest of his teammates, veterans and freshmen alike. He pushed Davis, his replacement in the starting lineup, to improve.

He spoke with the team during timeouts and in between quarters during games, giving them an extra perspective on what the offense was doing against them.

“Anzalone has such great respect from his teammates, such great respect from his coaches,” Collins said. “They embraced him and listened to him and kind of were urged on (by) him.

“He makes the people around him better.”

‘He’s on a whole ‘nother level’

Late in the first quarter of UF’s season opener against UMass, Anzalone fell to the ground after attempting a routine tackle.

The announced crowd of 88,121 held its breath as trainers tended to him, fearing the worst happened yet again.

After a brief moment, Anzalone got up on his feet and trotted off the field. He returned two plays later.

“It was just a little boo-boo,” Anzalone said after the game, following with a quick laugh.

He finished that game with six tackles and his first sack, and he kept rolling from there. Five games into the season, Anzalone has a team-best four quarterback hurries and is second on the team with 32 tackles.

He also has 2.5 sacks and a pair of pass breakups.

“He’s on a whole ‘nother level,” Davis said. “A whole ‘nother level. … He’s seeing everything a lot clearer. He’s taking care of everything.”

Yet Anzalone quietly undersold the value of his performance, of his return, of the start of what has now become his potential breakthrough.

“It’s nothing I haven’t come back from before,” Anzalone said. “I was just trying to know what to expect.”

Davis interjected.

“He was ready,” Davis said. “He was ready.”

“Yeah,” Anzalone responded. “I was ready.”

Contact Jordan McPherson at jmcpherson@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @J_McPherson1126.

Alex Anzalone (34) and CeCe Jefferson (96) motion to the crowd during Florida's 13-6 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 1 in Nashville. "He doesn't hold anything back," linebacker Jarrad Davis said of Anzalone. "He lets everything go, and that's what we want from our teammates."

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