Reintroducing five-star Alex Anzalone, Florida's tenacious defensive supernova

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone could have become another cautionary story about recruiting hype. Shoulder injuries derailed Anzalone's first three years with the Gators, turning one of the nation's most coveted high school linebackers in 2013 into a bystander.

How often do we play the "what if" game about recruits who caught a bad break? How many four- and five-star players disappear in a major program when they're not playing?

"I've seen people get lost the past three or four years of my being here, so I think it's definitively possible," Anzalone said. "I think a little adversity really reveals who you are. I just kind of put it all into perspective of what my potential is."

With his long, flowing blonde hair, Anzalone has become a quiet leader of college football's stingiest defense. He has 2.5 sacks and is tied for second in tackles on a unit ranked first nationally in total defense and scoring defense, albeit against three inferior opponents.

Ironically, the highest-profile start of Anzalone's career comes Saturday at Tennessee, a game ravaged by key injuries of other players for both teams.

"People forget: Alex was the guy in 2015," Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. "He was arguably the leader of the defense last preseason before he got hurt."

A funny thing about the insular world of college football programs: They know what's happening long before the rest of us do. While the public is only now catching up to Anzalone's potential -- so this is why Notre Dame fans got upset when he decommitted as Brian Kelly flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles -- Anzalone could see this coming despite the public's skepticism about his shoulder.

"You hear things, people ask you questions, especially in the media," Anzalone said. "It's almost like I'm tired of talking about my health."

Whatever happened to Alex Anzalone? Whether he likes it or not, yes, he's being reintroduced to us as the so-called "highly-recruited linebacker coming off an injury." But Anzalone is more than just that injury narrative.

"I don't let football describe who I am," he said. "When you go outside and it's over, it's over. People have a hard time letting all the football stuff go. I know there's more to life than just football, but it's also really fun to play, so while you're playing it, you might as well embrace it and have fun with it."

For the fun of it two years ago, Anzalone got a buzz cut before summer camp and hasn't cut his hair since. Some students call him "Thor."

"I call him 'Cousin Itt,'" Florida coach Jim McElwain said, referring to the fictional character in "The Addams Family" series.

Anzalone is already a college graduate. He recently got his sport management degree and is now in graduate school for business management.

Growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Anzalone graduated from high school with a 4.8 grade-point average.

"There are a couple things Alex doesn't like," said his father, Sal Anzalone, a pediatrician who moved with his wife to Naples, Florida, to be closer to their son. "He does not like to be bullshitted. If you bullshit Alex, that's going to turn him off big time. And he doesn't like being mediocre. He always says he's the black sheep in the family. 'My dad's a doctor. My two brothers are a doctor. I'm the only one who's not a doctor.'"

Early in high school, Anzalone appeared headed for a Division I lacrosse career. His body didn't seem big enough to handle major college football. He even took his SATs as a sophomore because of his interest in playing lacrosse at Yale or another Ivy League school.

Through a diet and training plan by John Schaeffer of Winning Factor Sports Sciences Training Systems, Anzalone bulked up later in high school. Winning Factor has also trained NFL running back LeSean McCoy and gold medal speed skaters Apolo Ono and Shani Davis.

Anzalone was essentially training as a pro while in high school. After 20 months in Schaeffer's program, he entered his senior year 40 pounds heavier at 233 pounds with 10-12 percent body fat, according to a 2012 article by the Reading Eagle.

Football scholarship offers started to pour in for Anzalone, who became caught up in some strange, high-profile recruiting sagas. Given how little he played the past three years at Florida, it's easy to forget how coveted he was coming out of high school.

247Sports, which rated Anzalone as a five-star prospect in its unique rankings and four-star in its composite, only ranked three outside linebackers better than Anzalone in the Class of 2013: Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame), Matthew Thomas (Florida State) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama). Alabama wanted Anzalone to play H-back. Notre Dame and Ohio State offered him as a linebacker.

At one point, Anzalone was committed to Ohio State. Then news surfaced that a Buckeyes fan, who is a convicted sex offender, gained access to players and recruits. When Anzalone made an unofficial visit to Ohio State, he posed with other recruits for a photo with the sex offender that was posted on the internet. Anzalone decommitted and his dad said the sex offender's access to players was the reason why.

Next, Anzalone was committed for a while to Notre Dame. During a campus visit, Anzalone posted on Twitter a picture of himself with All-American linebacker Manti Te'o. The photo drew this comment from a Twitter handle alleging to be Lennay Kekua, Te'o's phantom girlfriend: "Awwww he was telling me about you! Congrats! I'm Lennay, btw, his gf. Blessings!"

As the Kekua saga unfolded in January 2013, Anzalone retweeted the Kekua message and asked, "Who the heck was this?" By that point, Anazlone had already decommitted from Notre Dame. He made that decision one week earlier due to another saga: The NFL's pursuit of Kelly and his status as Notre Dame's coach.

"I think he went to go interview with the Eagles after the national championship game and then went out of the country right after," Anzalone said. "None of the assistant coaches could get a hold of him, and I was supposed to enroll the next couple days. I'm like, 'Geez.'"

Three years later, Sal Anzalone laughs at how ridiculous the situation became for his son given his indecisiveness about picking a college. "At that point, my head is spinning," Sal said.

On a Wednesday night in January 2013, Sal didn't know whether he would be taking his son the next morning to enroll at Notre Dame or Florida, which had an add/drop deadline for classes two days later. Sal put two piles of clothes on the dining room table -- one for Indiana weather, the other for Florida weather. The Indiana pile was three times higher because that's where the plan was for him to go. Sal, a Florida graduate, had bought a $250 Notre Dame jacket.

"People are like, 'His father is pushing him to Florida,'" Sal said. "The ironic thing is I wanted him to go Stanford. As he's wavering, I'm thinking is he crazy? What the hell? But I said, 'He's 18 years old, he doesn't do drugs, he's never given us any trouble. It's truly his decision.' We backed off."

The night before leaving for either Notre Dame or Florida, Sal said he told an indecisive Alex to sleep on his decision and follow his heart, not his head. Alex woke up the next morning and decided Florida.

"The biggest words he said: 'Dad, I'm not going to play it safe. I'm going to take a chance,'" Sal said. "He wasn't sure if he was good enough athletically and could hang in the locker room, you know, South vs. North and a whole different vibe with the SEC. The Big Ten is probably more who he is as a kid and a person."

Not surprisingly, as often happens with high-profile recruits who change their mind, some Notre Dame fans attacked Alex on Twitter.

"Looking back on it, I think I've matured since then," Alex said. "To say things to an 18-year-old kid, like that stuff, it's stupidity. It's a weird thing to get involved in, to me."

Football isn't the end-all, be-all for Anzalone. Don't misunderstand: He loves the game. Anzalone and Florida coaches clearly believe he's an NFL-caliber linebacker.

It's just that football and his injury recovery won't be all that defines him.

Anzalone's story could have been different. He could have been the next four- or five-star recruit who didn't pan out and goes on with his life. But as Sal said: Don't B.S. his son and don't expect him to be mediocre.

At Florida, Anzalone initially suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but the stableness never fully healed. After playing two games in 2015, he underwent a surgery called bony Bankart repair to stabilize the shoulder before it became much worse. Anzalone said the injury "really wasn't a big deal" and he recovered in three to four months.

"Sometimes guys that go through those types of injuries, they kind of disappear from your team a little bit because it's hard to deal with," McElwain said. "But he was literally at every practice. He was helping younger guys at the position. He stayed engaged, and I think that's why he's such a leader on this team. He's got a pulse on our team, and he's not that vocal, but when he does say something, it doesn't matter, everybody listens."

Anzalone and fellow Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis, who was Anzalone's backup to start 2015, have a special bond. It's not unusual for them to recognize a formation pre-snap, communicate to adjust assignments, and decide that one of them will apply pressure on the quarterback.

"Alex has the size, he has the speed, he has the work ethic, he's got the intelligence, and he loves football," said Collins, who bonded with Anzalone over their mutual Pennsylvania roots by discussing V & S Sandwich Shop. "One of the best things you can say about Alex is he's a great teammate. I'm telling you, that's a hard component, especially when you get to this level."

There were tough days during the injury. When Florida played Tennessee last year, Anzalone had just undergone surgery, so he watched the game from home. Anzalone said that was "one of the lowest moments" of his career as the Gators struggled on defense while falling behind 27-14 before rallying to win.

"Last year made me realize you can't even take football for granted for even a second," he said. "Even in the meetings, even when you're tired during camp, this is supposed to be for fun. We're here to play a game we love."

Whatever happened to Alex Anzalone?

He's answering that question by making a statement on the field.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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