Image Credit: UAA
With the talk of the college football world this week surrounding star players choosing not to suit up for bowl games, the Florida Gators find themselves in a unique position.
Florida’s defense features multiple potential first-round draft picks, all of whom have been mostly healthy this season and were not forced to go through midseason rehabilitation like the pair of running backs making the biggest headlines: LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
But the Gators’ entire defense has been injury-riddled this season, and a number of other players who will not be as highly drafted but are equally important to Florida’s success face the option of stepping foot on the field at the 2017 Outback Bowl and giving it a go or using the extra time to get healthy and prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Chief among them is senior linebacker Jarrad Davis, who played through a serious ankle injury only to seemingly hurt it worse and miss more time. Davis returned against Alabama in the 2016 SEC Championship Game but was clearly hobbled. Certainly no one would blame him for missing the Outback Bowl, but one can be sure Davis has every intention of playing.
Head coach Jim McElwain announced Monday that redshirt junior LB Alex Anzalone returned to practice last week, though in a limited fashion. Anzalone “beat some bags up, which was good to see,” McElwain said. “… Time will tell there. We’ll know more when we get back and get down [to Tampa]. We’ve got a couple days of padded practice here coming up — he won’t be in any contact stuff, but he did do some [skeleton drill] work and some individual work.”
Anzalone, who was incredibly productive for Florida this season, has missed the last four games since breaking his arm at Arkansas on Nov. 5. By the time the Outback Bowl kicks off, he will have spent nearly two months on the shelf.
For a player who missed nearly the entire 2015 season with a shoulder injury and may be looking to jump to the NFL early before he gets hit with another injury, Anzalone has a tough call ahead of him. He can play (if cleared) and try to put another great effort on film, sit and declare with just eight starts under his belt in his college career, or stick around for one more season regardless of his decision.
“It’s one of those deals where it’s a personal decision in a team game. It’s hard. It’s hard on everybody. At the same time, former general managers, people from the league that we’ve had come talk to our team, one of the things they say over and over — and I think there was a great example in the Birmingham Bowl — it’s really more than 75 percent what you put on film,” McElwain explained. “For a lot of guys, it’s an opportunity against a really good opponent to go and put out some really good film on themselves playing at a high level in a really good ballgame. When you think what [Dante] Fowler did in that bowl game for his status, he actually jumped up in the first round based on those five sacks. … [It] really benefited him. … It’s a personal choice.”
Indeed, Fowler jumped all the way up to the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, due in part to not only his performance in the game, but his incredible dedication to the team and tenacity to play the contest in the first place.
On the other side of that coin, of course, is Antonio Morrison, who seriously injured his left knee during a stellar effort in the game and had no choice but to return for his senior season. Like Morrison, though, neither Davis nor Anzalone is anticipated to be a high draft selection, regardless of their tremendous production at Florida.
That’s not the same for junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wison, who to this point have given no indication that they plan on missing the Outback Bowl. Tabor said he will announce his NFL decision after the game, while Wilson has stayed mum on the topic.
“I think there’s a right way to do a lot of different things as you go about your business, not just with football. … I just can’t tell you how far Jalen Tabor has come,” McElwain said. “… He means a lot to this football team. He loves to play; he loves to compete. He understands the different things that are involved in enhancing your brand. He’s really learned that. I’m just really proud of him. He’s played really well. He practices his tail off. This guy, he’s doing it right.”
McElwain said the Gators have already received back the information requested from the NFL on the players that are considering leaving early. Junior offensive lineman David Sharpe, redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend and redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley are believed to be at least considering leaving along with Tabor, Wilson and Anzalone.
Florida will do its best to help direct them in their futures, but ultimately it’s up to the players to make their decisions.
Five Gators left early for the NFL Draft last season, but Florida saw both Davis and now-redshirt senior safety Marcus Maye return despite seemingly receiving some legitimate NFL interest.