It did not take long in Knoxville on Saturday night for the Florida Gators to fully realize just how much they missed middle linebacker David Reese in those first three games of the season.
In his first game back from an ankle injury, Reese made the tackle on Tennessee’s first offensive play. Two plays later, he pressured quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Two plays after that he recovered a fumble in midair in the UT backfield.
From there, he made stop after stop, ending the game as the Gators’ leading tackler with 11.
It was a performance that defines the kind of impact Reese can have on the defense overall, and against the run in particular.
“Oh yeah, that’s huge,” senior rush end Cece Jefferson said. “What did he have, 11 tackles? He led the team, man. That speaks volumes. That speaks for itself. We’re definitely happy to have him back there calling the signals and being the leader of that linebacker core. I love you, Reese, I’m glad you’re back.”
That’s a sentiment shared probably by all Gators.
The defense clearly missed Reese, the team’s top run stopper, when he was gone. And they missed him the most in that 27-16 loss to Kentucky where the defense was gutted for 303 yards on the ground.
Many of those yards came after missed tackles.
Reese doesn’t miss tackles, he makes them, so he could have made a difference in that game. But that doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that Reese is back, back in form, and the Florida run defense seems much more sound based on the performance against Tennessee. The Gators held the Vols to 156 yards and just 2.9 yards a carry.
“Any time you can add a guy who has experience, has a physicality to him, that allows you to reduce seams in the defense,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “And when you do that you have a chance to get guys down for negative yardage or keep it to a minimum gain.
“He’s definitely a physical presence, and I think any time you can add a physical presence that has leadership qualities to your team position becomes better. But he also makes other players around him better. It allows him to have maybe a little comfort in his leadership and his communication to them on how we need to play better.”
Reese entered Saturday night’s game knowing his ankle still wasn’t quite 100 percent. But after that first series, he knew it was going to hold up and he could go ahead and cut it loose, which he did.
“It felt great just to get back out there,” he said. “The energy was awesome. Neyland Stadium, they had 100,000-something fans. Night game, so the atmosphere was great. We came to play as a defense. That was very exciting. I felt just great getting my feet back wet?
“First, I just want to make sure I give 100 percent. The main goal was how we played as a defense. I feel we had a good showing. We still gave up too many points. We’ve got to learn how to finish and strain through those games so we can really take the heart out of teams.”
Reese is more than just a top tackler and team leader, he’s also kind of the quarterback of the defense, getting the signals from the sideline and making sure everyone in the front seven is lined up properly and aware of their responsibility.
That was missed, too, when he was gone.
“He’s huge,” Jefferson said. “He’s the voice behind us. He knows everything, he knows all his calls. He watches film, so what he says goes. He’s the leader of this defense.”
Knowing the responsibilities that come with being a leader, Reese worked hard in the offseason to prepare himself for the season. He was having a strong preseason camp, but with only a few practices to go, he injured his ankle.
“Late in camp,” he said. “Just a freak accident. It was seven-on-seven, last two days of camp, I believe.
“It was heartbreaking. I had to realize I’m blessed to be able to play football again. I just had to really take that time to try and be a leader and help the young guys out and help guys get ready for the games.”
The hardest part was watching that one game in particular, the loss to the Wildcats.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “But we put the best guys in there at the time. Our guys played hard. We could have done better. I feel like if we see them again, we’ll be better off.”
The start of Reese’s season was delayed three games by his injured ankle. But, as he showed Saturday night, he’s back and ready to make an impact.
It started with that tackle on the very first play.
“It felt good, got the little pregame jitters out,” he said. “It felt good to get back, get my feet wet. When I got that first tackle, I actually felt my ankle was going to be OK for this game and I’m going to be OK for the rest of the season. I’m going to be solid to play.”