GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When David Reese takes the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, he’ll settle into his spot at middle linebacker as one of the most important players on Florida’s 2017 roster, filling the void of a first-round NFL Draft pick in the middle of a rebuilt Gators defense.
But he just as easily could have been standing on the other sideline in Michigan maize and blue.
“I cherish this opportunity to play them,” Reese said Monday. “I always watched them growing up. I wish it was in the Big House, but you can’t get a better stage than Texas, so I’m excited.”
Reese committed to the Wolverines in the spring of his junior year at Farmington High School, about an hour northwest of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor.
But he changed his mind in the fall and reopened his recruitment — ultimately choosing Florida over Texas, Nebraska and TCU — after the signs started to become clear to him that Michigan wasn’t the right fit.
There was an academic piece to the decision. Reese wanted to enroll in business school and it was not clear that was going to be a possibility at Michigan. And, of course, there was a significant football piece to the decision as well.
Soon after he committed, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh surprised the family by saying he wanted Reese to play fullback. A strong showing at a Wolverines camp that summer convinced then-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin that Reese was indeed an asset at linebacker, but they couldn’t convince Harbaugh to let him enroll early and get a jump start on competing for a role.
All told, Reese’s feelings toward the instate power had changed, but he doesn’t look back on the recruiting experience with any negativity.
He calls Harbaugh “a good guy” who gave him an opportunity. U ltimately he decided it wasn’t the right opportunity, and for that he has no regrets.
“I’m blessed to be here. I’m happy (how) everything unfolded,” he said. “I feel like it was just God’s way of telling me that this is home and that this is the place to be. … I always will have a special place in my heart for Detroit, the city itself, but as far as school, I’m a Florida Gator and I’m proud to be one.”
The full story
Talk to David Reese Sr. long enough about his son, and it’s clear the Gators’ sophomore linebacker carries a great deal of confidence and pride in his craft.
So the first disappointment with the Michigan recruiting experience actually came before he had committed, late in his junior year after Harbaugh had taken the job and invited the top 10 football recruits in the state to a Wolverines basketball game.
“He was the last of the top 10 they initial early offered,” Reese Sr. said. “I remember it like yesterday. They brought all of the top 10 players up to the basketball game and when we left — and I don’t know if we left too early, we left at halftime — but he just had a terrible taste in his mouth because he didn’t get an offer that day and they made a big deal about bringing these guys up.”
The offer would come and Reese committed that April, but that summer they heard for the first time that Harbaugh viewed the prospect as a fullback.
Reese Sr. understands where he was coming from in that Reese had been an effective running back in high school and had the hard-nosed mentality for the fullback position, but there had never been a discussion about — or more importantly an interest in — pursuing a future in that role.
“When he initially had committed to Michigan no one said anything about positions or nothing so we just assumed as a family, my wife, David that everything was only about linebacker,” Reese Sr. said. “All of a sudden down the road, one of the sports writers released that David was not his first priority at linebacker but more his first priority at fullback. We were like, ‘What the heck? What’s going on with that?’ … Thats not what David’s desires was.”
The family met with Harbaugh and, according to Reese’s father, the gist of the message was that “David can help us in multiple ways.”
The elder Reese, a former high school football coach, called it “coach speak” and the family decided not to worry about the position matter at that time. As long as Reese could get in as an early enrollee, they felt confident he’d prove himself at his position of choice.
“We were salivating over Michigan’s depth chart at linebacker,” his father said.
Reese attended a Michigan camp that summer to answer any questions about his ability at linebacker, and according to his father Durkin, the defensive coordinator at the time and now the head coach at Maryland, told the family he had seen enough.
“So Durkin and Coach Harbaugh met, we come back after doing the academic thing and getting his schedule and all that set up, Durkin comes back and says this is where we’re at: ‘I have no reservations he could play linebacker for me, but right now Coach Harbaugh feels we had some kids with higher priority on offense to bring in for the early enrollee spot,'” Reese Sr. said. “We felt that if we got there in April there was no way that anybody could control our destiny. So when that didn’t happen we didn’t de-commit right away, (but) that’s when we started looking.”
In came the Gators, who impressed the family with their interest in recruiting Reese.
Randy Shannon, Florida’s linebackers coach at at the time, and head coach Jim McElwain both made visits to Farmington to seal the deal.
While a Michigan academic advisor had suggested that it might be tough for Reese to attend the university’s business school while playing football, according to his father, McElwain brought with him on that visit a letter of admittance into Florida’s college of business.
More than that, the family felt he was straightforward with them at all times in discussing Reese’s future with the program and ability to get on the field early.
“It proved David was a big priority to them,” his father said. “We had just got back from the Texas visit and they wanted to make sure they were the last face David saw.”
That’s how Reese became a Gator.
And little did the family know at the time that he’d get a chance to play against the program that let him get away.
“This is like the added cherry on top,” Reese Sr. said. “We did not know Florida was going to play Michigan, but now you don’t understand, David calls me at least 3-4 times a day talking about it.”
Something to prove
Reese has already shown what he can do on the field at Florida.
He started four games at middle linebacker as a true freshman after taking over for injured star Jarrad Davis. As he revealed earlier this month for the first time, he delivered one of his best performances — a team-high 12 tackles in the Gators’ momentous win at LSU — despite playing with two fractured wrists.
Overall he finished last season with 49 total tackles and 2 tackles for loss before being shutdown prior to the bowl game. After having surgery to repair both wrists — one he injured in high school and one he hurt the week leading up to that LSU game — and sitting out the spring, he’s back to full strength and ready for his first full season as Florida’s starting middle linebacker.
Reese has talked a couple times about how much he learned from Davis, a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions. Now the job is all his.
And if Florida’s retooled defense — which sent eight players to the NFL after last season — is going to maintain the high standard it’s set in recent years, Reese is going to have to be a tone-setter.
“He’s kind of that guy that’s kind of the nuts and bolts of where we’re at on defense,” McElwain said. “He really plays the way he’s supposed to. He’s been doing a great job of communicating. With that being said, he just always makes plays. He’s in the right spot. He’s a little sneaky, being able to run through gaps. … You see some of the plays he made last year when guys, when he hit them, they kind of went backward. That’s kind of a good thing. He’s a natural football player.”
There’s no doubt now that Reese belongs in the middle of the defense, but sure, there’s some extra motivation to further prove that Saturday against Michigan.
“I think it means a great deal to him,” his father said.
Reese says he keeps in touch several of friends on the Wolverines roster, like young cornerback Ambry Thomas, wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, cornerback Lavert Hill and offensive lineman Michael Onwenu. He expects to have more than 10 supporters in attendance at the game as well.
And sure, he admits, he wants to show the Wolverines what they’re missing.
“Oh yeah, of course,” he said. “And that’s coming on game day. I’m ready to play vicious, play with a lot of energy and ready to get this win.”
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