Parting Thoughts, Part I: Alex Anzalone discusses his time at Florida
Each year, Inside the Gators kicks off its off-season coverage with our Parting Thoughts series, a collection of interviews with departing seniors and early-entry juniors recapping their time at Florida.
Up today is the first of a three-part installment with linebacker Alex Anzalone.
* Tuesday: His time at Florida
* Wednesday: Talking about teammates
* Thursday: Post Florida
You were rated as a five-star prospect coming out of high school. With that being the case, did you have more pressure coming in because of that?
Anzalone: I don’t think so, just because No. 1, I didn’t really pay attention to it. I kind of just viewed it as like, it’s kind of cool to look back on one day and kind of something to be proud of. But I really didn’t look at it like that. I just wanted to come in and contribute as much as I could, whatever role that I had to play. But I didn’t feel any pressure.
Were you treated any differently?
Anzalone: No, I don’t think so. No. 1, there was Vernon Hargreaves and a couple other big-time recruits in the class. Obviously, we already have two first-rounders. Hopefully, two more this year. So it’s one of those deals where one, I wasn’t the only really good player, and two, that’s not really how Coach Muschamp operated.
You came in as part of the Class of 2013 - and though there were bumps in the road in his first two years, that season, your freshman year, the bottom fell out for Will Muschamp as the Gators finished 4-8. Things happened during that season that had never happened at Florida - including losing to a FCS school in Georgia Southern. What was it like to go through that?
Anzalone: It kind of just seemed like all of it was almost like a dream. Like it was almost not happening. That’s really like any loss you experience. You’re like, “Is this really happening?" You’re not viewing it as we’re losing. You view it like time is running out to win this game. I was young, so I wasn’t really contributing a whole lot. I know on special teams, but it was hard. The University of Florida, you go 4-8. Your coach is on the hot seat, you just get to Florida. It was hard.
What happened with Muschamp from a personality or coaching stand point - did the fact that he was under pressure show? Was that your first real indication that college football is a big time business and not just fun and games on the field?
Anzalone: I kind of knew that going into it, but Coach Muschamp was relatively the same. He obviously used the 4-8 year as an example and we tried to learn from it. That’s what we tried to do. He didn’t necessarily act differently toward us. I mean, that off-season was a tough off-season, as far as strength and conditioning-wise. But he didn’t really change much.
Did the pressure Muschamp was under filter down to the team?
Anzalone: Yeah, I mean, I guess there was pressure. You’re at the University of Florida and the stadium is half-empty, you know? Florida State game, it was all Florida State fans. You hear about season-ticket holders selling their tickets for the Florida State game to Florida State fans. You feel the pressure and stuff.
Of course, he was fired following the 2015 season. What was your initial reaction to Jim McElwain's hire?
Anzalone: He was good. We kind of went into it wanting to buy into something new and trying to just get over that hump of bad luck that we were having. We liked what he preached and what he was about and what we’ve heard about him.
What was your first impression of him? Any details of that first meeting?
Anzalone: He came in and had his button-down and tie on and just walked and pretty much told us, “Hey, I know it’s hard for you guys. I know you guys are going through a coaching transition and all of you really love Coach Muschamp. I know he’s a great guy, but the one thing I ask you to do is give me the chance to earn your respect and be your coach.”
One of the things Florida fans worry about is how he comes across to prospects in recruiting. What are your thoughts on that, as far as the perceived laid-back persona?
Anzalone: I think sometimes he plays to that persona, but I wasn’t recruited by him at all so I don’t know how he acts toward recruits. So I don’t really know.
How were things different from the McElwain regime compared to Muschamp's time at Florida? What changed the most? How did it change on a day to day basis as a player from one coach to the next?
Anzalone: The one thing that changed the most was just guys’ confidence around the program. I don’t know what from, but just maybe a fresh start or a new set of eyes watching you. I think that was the biggest thing that gave people confidence in themselves and kind of just believe that we can win some games and do something special.
What was your lowest point at Florida?
Anzalone: Probably when I got hurt last year. It was tough, it was hard at first. I feel like I was playing really well those first two games. I don’t know, it was tough because I knew what I could do. It was just frustrating that had to happen.
What would you consider the highlight of your career?
Anzalone: I think going to back-to-back SEC Championship Games. I know both outcomes were not the outcomes we wanted, but just being a part of two seasons like that, it’s cool and it’s something special that a lot of people that played at Florida the past five years can say.
What is your most lasting memory?
Anzalone: I think the relationships with everyone I have. I don’t think that there’s many people in the program or around the program, whether it be from Gas to the janitor to the equipment people to whether, and I don’t have a relationship with them or I’m close with them or whatever – go up and talk to. I think that’s the biggest thing.
Basically, for your entire time at Florida the Gators relied on a top tier defense to carry a subpar offense. What is the mindset of a defensive player in that situation? Is it a point of pride? Is there a point where the defense resents the offense?
Anzalone: I guess that mindset you have, you have to play that play and play to the best of your ability. It doesn’t matter what the score is. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the game. Every play is a new play and has a new life. Anything can happen on any play. That’s kind of the mindset that you have.
Though he was only the defensive coordinator for less than a month, in your opinion what is the biggest difference between how Randy Shannon and Geoff Collins ran the defense?
Anzalone: There was some difference. Obviously, they’re two different types of guys. Coach Collins is a high-energy guy that really focuses on that and you know how he is. Coach Shannon is more of a low-key guy and doesn’t do a whole lot of talking. He’s more low-key about how he handles his. Not that it’s a good or bad thing, but he’s just more subtle.
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Blake Alderman, Landon Watnick and Mark Wheeler contributed to this report