Alex Anzalone seems like a pretty laidback fella.
If his long, golden locks didn’t give it away, maybe his soft, boyish voice does, or that giggle the Florida linebacker gets from a corny joke.
But what really lets you in on his nonchalant personality is how untroubled he sounds when describing frustrating shoulder injuries that have cut short two of his three collegiate seasons. One was a torn labrum as a freshman and the other stemmed from that first injury, showing just how unstable his right shoulder had been for the last couple of years.
Anzalone, picked by many around the program to have a sensational junior season at Florida, barely made it through two games before last year’s injury shelved him for the year. But as he enters his senior season, Anzalone isn't bitter. He’s only concerned with showing the world what it missed out on in 2015.
“I feel like I was going into having a really big, breakout year,” Anzalone told ESPN.com earlier this month. “It makes it a little worse, but where I am now and looking back at it, it all happens for a reason and it’s going to be alright.
“Yeah, I didn’t produce last year on the field, but I learned a lot from it.”
What Anzalone learned was how to be a better student of the game and how to be a better leader. With football taken away, he served himself triple helpings of notes and film work with teammates and a couple sides of bonding.
Hobbled and hurting internally, Anzalone kept as positive as possible by staying as close as possible to his teammates. He was almost a coach in practice, while serving as half coach, half cheerleader in games.
“Honestly, other than when I had to leave to get surgery, I don’t think I missed a meeting once,” Anzalone said.
Now, rehab is over and Anzalone is ready for some football. And he'll be needed more than ever, especially with the loss of leading tackler Antonio Morrison and the unproven depth surrounding him at linebacker. There's also the issue with him being pretty athletic and very football savvy. According to those around him, Anzalone has all the talent to be elite in 2016.
Anzalone has been flying around at practices. His instincts haven't suffered and his field awareness appears to have improved. Anzalone is a thumper, but his athleticism and smarts should make him a menace for opponents, fellow linebacker Jarrad Davis said.
“I think going into last preseason or going into the season last year, there was debate or even conversation that he might be one of the best players on our football team,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said during Florida’s media day. “I think through the first two games, he showed that. He was all over the field making plays, making calls. He makes the people around him better.”
Before he could get back to running around with his teammates, Anzalone endured the frustrations of someone eager to play, but who was being held back as a precaution -- something he appreciates now. Anzalone first dealt with a shoulder injury during the spring of his freshman season. He later tore his right labrum while trying to make a tackle on a punt against Georgia Southern.
Anzalone played through his sophomore season as a backup linebacker and a starter on special teams. In Week 2 against East Carolina last year, Anzalone’s shoulder was pulled awkwardly, re-injuring it. Anzalone said it wasn’t a re-tear of his labrum but an aggravation of something else from his previous injury.
Surgery was required, though Anzalone said he opted for it as a precaution because more damage could have been done to his right shoulder. Three to four months of rehab was required, and with help from Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training, Anzalone’s shoulder feels stronger than ever.
Anzalone was non-contact this spring, but admits he snuck in a hit or two.
“I’m not one of those crazy guys, but it felt good [to hit someone again]," Anzalone said with a laugh.
“It’s not that big of a deal. Structurally, it’s completely repaired. I’m just ready to go.”
And his coaches and teammates are ready for him to go. The speedy, quick-twitch athlete has high expectations for himself and those around him believe he’s meant for special things this fall.
“He really is one of the top players on this team," Davis said. "Our defense wouldn't be where it is without him on it. Alex is going to bring something else to the table that a lot of teams aren’t ready for and a lot of teams don’t know about.”