Florida Gators 2015 spring practice: Alex McCalister, Jake McGee could key turnaround

By Adam Silverstein
April 3, 2015

Head coach Jim McElwain took the field with the Florida Gators for the 10th time on Wednesday as the 2015 spring practice session rolled along. After practice, he met with the media to discuss some goings on with the team.

Opening statement

“We bounced back and did have a heck of a practice today. I thought, especially in our situations, we worked two minute end of the game need field goal to push it into overtime. We worked overtime as well for the first time we were in true goal line in situations, so that was really good. And then we had a real spirited Gator drill today and so there was some good stuff leading into Friday. There will be a lot of really good film work.

“What I’m searching for [Thursday] is our guys really taking from the situational films. We’re going to start to stack some things and [Thursday’s] going to be huge for us in the meeting room as we’re moving forward. My message to them [Wednesday] was, let’s go ahead and win the meeting [Thursday]. That’s what we’ve got to kind of do one step at a time. Let’s just get a little bit better.”

Stepping up

At 6-foot-6 and nearly 240 pounds, redshirt junior defensive end Alex McCalister is not a hard guy to spot. Even without his overwhelming size, McCalister’s demeanor both on and off the field has his coaches enthused about what he brings to the table.

“I just love his smile. I love his energy. I love the way he plays the game. He’s got some unique pass rushing ability with his size, his length, his quickness. More so, he’s a guy that can affect the people around him in a positive way. That’s something that we look for. He’s a lot of fun to be around,” McElwain said on Wednesday.

McElwain’s is not a unique take on McCalister. Far from it, in fact.

“Somebody [that size that] runs and moves as well as he does, he’s going to catch your attention,” said defensive coordinator Geoff Collins after the team’s fifth spring practice. “His personality and how much juice and energy that he has, I think you start seeing it on the practice field starting to come out, him being a leader and those kinds of things. People naturally like being around Alex. He plays kind of the way his personality is. He has fun, he loves playing ball, he celebrates with his teammates – and that’s one of the big things.”

Added defensive line coach Chris Rumph: “Oh man, I love him, man. He’s the Energizer bunny, man. He’s bouncing all over the place, man. He keeps me going; he has energy all the time. I love the kid. He plays hard; he practices hard. … You just got to keep a tiny rein on him because sometimes he’ll get out there a little bit. He’s a great kid. I look forward to working with him, and I think he’s going to do a lot of great things for this university and this D-line.”

McCalister, who played in 12 games as a redshirt sophomore but did not earn a single start, is prepared to have a breakout 2015 campaign, building on his 23 tackles (eight for loss) and six sacks from a year ago.

“That was my foundation. Now it’s my time to take off,” he said.

Helping him reach that goal is the Florida coaching staff that (obviously) cannot sing his praises enough. Suffice to say, the feeling is mutual from McCalister.

“It’s been a complete 180. Coach Mac and the staff he brought, it’s amazing. It’s so much more energetic. It’s live. You’re ready to practice now. You’re ready to go to meetings. It’s a real good turnaround,” he said. “It’s great for us, the players. You can tell the coaching staff, they love it too, clowning with us and all.”

For a defense with depth issues at linebacker and holes to fill along the defensive line, McCalister’s development will be of tremendous importance in 2015.

‘Debut’ not a game, again

For the third straight year, either due to injuries or depth issues, the Orange & Blue Debut (to fans’ dismay) will be a glorified practice rather than a true spring game.

McElwain has yet to finalize a format for the event but did note Wednesday that it will be all but impossible to play with two separate teams due to the lack of depth along the offensive line.

“There’s going to be live scrimmaging going on,” he said.

“Our O-line, I can’t say enough about how they’re hanging in there. We won’t have true teams necessarily. We’ll just do some offense against defense because we don’t have enough to have two teams out there. And we’re still kind of working with that. We’ll have a lot of competition going on, there’s no doubt about it.”

Second try at a final year

A gruesome broken leg in Florida’s season opener took redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee, who was expected to be a game-changing playmaker for the Gators, off the field for a full year. And it almost ended his college career, not due to the severity of the injury but rather because the NCAA nearly denied his waiver for a sixth season.

“It wasn’t looking good for a while, and if I had to bet money, I would say I wouldn’t be back here this year,’’ McGee told the Florida Times-Union this week. “But [athletic director Jeremy] Foley was really impactful in getting it through, and they got it through. I didn’t expect to be back this year.”

But McGee is back, and it did not even require McElwain to recruit him to the program he joined one season ago as a transfer from Virginia. McGee, at 24 the oldest player on Florida’s roster, knew that he wanted one more shot in college to improve his stock ahead of his professional career.

“Once it worked out, I was pretty set on coming back and excited to get back out there,” he said. “With a new staff coming in, makes it a lot of fun and there’s a lot of positive energy.”

McElwain said he was juiced to see the smile on McGee’s face when the waiver came back with positive news, and McElwain was likely smiling just as wide when he learned that the 6-foot-6, 243-pound pass catching behemoth would be on his sideline next year.

“To have a guy that can be an on-line guy as well as an effective pass catcher working underneath is something that is really important. He brings that,” McElwain said Wednesday. “We haven’t seen him, obviously, with his hand in the dirt because he hasn’t taken any live snaps yet, which he won’t all spring, but what he’s done in a lot of other individual drills and positional skelly-type drills, half-line, those types of things, you can tell he’s got a real natural knack. And he’s a body that the quarterbacks kind of like to throw to. There’s something to be said about that.”

Since taking over the Gators program, McElwain has stressed how important tight ends are to his offensive system. He likes to use multiple tight ends of different sizes and skill sets in order to “create formational matchups and personnel matchups” that Florida’s offense can use to its advantage.

So while the Gators have not had much production at the position since the departure of Jordan Reed, that should change, especially with four other scholarship tight ends (in addition to McGee) competing in spring practice.

At least that was until Wednesday’s practice when sophomore DeAndre Goolsby, perhaps the most game-ready of those four, suffered what was somewhat described as a bone bruise. He left practice to begin rehab but was expected by McElwain to return to the field Friday barring an unforeseen issue.

Odds and ends

» Redshirt sophomore running back Adam Lane returned to practice Wednesday, two days after McElwain insinuated that Lane was cleared to rejoin his team but had not done so for his own concerns. “It was good to get another running back in there from a depth standpoint,” McElwain said Wednesday.

» McElwain on laying into the team for its less-than-stellar effort on Monday: “I didn’t really get after them that much as far as just the explanation of the facts. The important thing as a coaching staff is to explain the ‘why.’ Why do we go through this? I tell them, look, I’m going to be brutally honest with them, both in a good way when things are right, but I’ve got to point out when things aren’t quite the way we expect them. That was the case and then you’re able to show it on film. That’s the one thing. That camera never lies and it doesn’t turn off, so it’s pretty easy to see the guys’ energy, tempo, all those type of things, attention to the details. That beared out when we were able to go through the film.”

» McElwain on becoming more comfortable in his role: “It’s still a whirlwind every day. I can’t say that it isn’t. I feel more comfortable because I’m starting to get to know the players a little bit. … From a comfort standpoint, it’s good. I’ll be excited to get moved into a house and some of those kind of things that have nothing to do with the football part. But the football part has been good and that’s a credit to these players, to be honest.”

» UF president Kent Fuchs on acting as head football coach for one day: “I want you all to know that practice today, we rebounded from Monday. Today was a great practice. And I also want you all to know that after one day as the head coach for the University of Florida, I’ve decided that I really like my day job, my old day job. So I’m going to go back and be the president and let the real coach run our football program. He’s much better at it, and I get my desk back. … It’s the most fun I’ve had in years, literally. It’s just been amazing.”

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