McCalister goes from project to pass rusher

The hardest part was buying in. Alex McCalister heard the talk when he signed with Florida, saying he would be a project that wouldn’t get on the field for a few years.

No one wants to hear that when they sign with a major football program. Every freshman wants to play immediately and make an impact. But if McCalister was thrown on the field during his freshman year in 2012, even he knows now there’s no way he would have held up.

McCalister sat behind veteran defensive linemen like Dominque Easley, Sharrif Floyd, Lerentee McCray and even freshmen like Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler. But that time on the bench let him learn and watch how to work.

The biggest reason he came in with the ‘project’ label was his weight. McCalister came to campus a little under 215 pounds, but his 6-7 frame offered plenty of upside. The weight needed to come as fast as possible. Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said he used to look like a character from the movie A Bug’s Life because of how skinny he was when he showed up in Gainesville. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said they used to call him ‘zipper’ because of how skinny he was.

There were many nights when McCalister sat at his house ordering pizza after pizza, eating as much as possible and hoping for the weight to come. For his first two years on campus, McCalister dedicated himself to eating.

Those nights followed lonely days on the scout team in practice.

“Everybody wants to come in and play,” Alex McCalister said. “Even my second year, I still wanted to play but I was still that project. I still had to develop, I still had to learn. The biggest hurdle was really just accepting that, knowing that you are a project guy and you’ve got to just keep fighting, keep fighting, keep hurdling.”

Growing up, McCalister never had any interest in the football field. He grew up in an area consumed with basketball, and after having a size advantage over most of his peers as a child, McCalister’s eyes were on the hardwood. One day, he wanted to play basketball for Roy Williams at North Carolina.

His size and athleticism didn’t deter those dreams. And coming out of high school, he had some offers to play college basketball at Davidson and a few other schools. In his junior year of high school, the football coach talked him into joining the team.

McCalister went with it and agreed to give football a try, but his eyes were still on basketball.

“He pretty much did that. I just knew I was going to play for Roy Williams at Carolina for basketball. But he didn’t even know who I was,” McCalister said with a grin.

Going into his senior year of high school, the offers started to come in despite only one year of football on tape. Schools were drooling over the athleticism. His 6-7 frame needed weight badly, but college coaches were able to dream about the potential.

He didn’t always know what he was doing on the field during his junior season of high school. It was his first year playing, and he just wanted to have fun doing it. It wasn’t until late in the season that he thought he could have a future in the game.

“I was just running around playing,” McCalister said about high school. “It really wasn’t difficult. It was more just fun. I wasn’t thinking about it at all. That’s why I picked it up so easy I think. It was just fun. It was always fun.”

The Florida coaching staff was one of them that threw their hat in the ring to get McCalister. They offered and took McCalister late in the process, knowing that it would take time for him to develop to the point where they could trust him against Southeastern Conference offensive tackles.

“He's got all of the attributes you want, but it's just a matter of can he carry the weight and can he add strength,” Muschamp said.

Florida tight end Tevin Westbrook said he hates matching up with him in practice. McCalister’s 6-7 frame becomes an even tougher matchup because of his 7-2 wingspan, 10-foot broad jump and 39-inch vertical leap. There’s explosiveness in his frame, and his long arms allow him to push off the offensive tackle and still see where the quarterback is going.

This season is showing that not only could McCalister add the weight, but he could also add the strength. As the Gators prepare to host Missouri this week, the redshirt sophomore leads the Florida defense with four sacks and is tied for the team lead with five tackles for a loss.

“His body is maturing,” Durkin said. “He’s growing into things, and I think he has a better understanding of what we’re doing defensively and also more confidence in what he’s doing. His opportunities have continued to grow because he’s done well with them. He’s a tough matchup one-on-one to block, and he’s doing really well.

“We’re expanding his role every week. He’s getting more and more snaps. He’s playing hard, he’s getting off blocks. We’ll keep doing that with him.”

McCalister came to Florida just wanting to be a contributor on a team. He watched during that 2012 season as a dominant defensive line took over games, thinking one day that would be him.

This season, it finally is.

“Just getting those reps and getting those snaps in the game gave me more confidence,” McCalister said. “I’m feeling thoughts on the field like, ‘it’s me again.’ I just have that confidence and working my moves. It’s natural now and not thinking too hard.”

The scariest part for opponents is that McCalister’s impact might just be starting. He’s in just his fifth year of organized football and still has a lot of room to grow physically and mentally.

“He still looks skinny out there,” Durkin said. “He still looks and has a lot of room to grow. He’ll continue to do that. As he gets more snaps, he’ll progress to a better player as well. Every week you’re seeing he’s playing a little better.”

It’s an exciting outcome for McCalister after he was once hesitant about even choosing football. Growing up with his heart in basketball, his eyes were always on playing for the Tar Heels. But when he suits up for the Gators again on Saturday, it’ll be a further reminder that he made the right choice.

“Really, really, really excited about the future,” McCalister said. “I’m talking about the future here, future wherever this takes me. Just keep working and grinding and wherever I end up, that’s where I end up. I’m extremely happy that I chose football.”

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