As summer drags on, college football season slowly inches closer and closer. In early July, there are a lot more questions than answers about how any team’s season will shake out. In this series, Gator Country will highlight the biggest questions for every Florida Gators position group and the affects the answers will have on this season.
So far, we’ve covered every offensive position group. For the next segments, we switch gears towards defense. The stamp of Florida football. Or so it has been for a while now, but could that change this season? It’s still up in the air. After losing seven starters to the NFL, there are so many unknowns for this defensive unit, possibly leaving even more questions to be answered on defense than on offense in 2017.
The front line of the defense kicks things off for the next half of this series.
The Gators look to fill the holes left behind by Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox on the defensive line this season. Two very different stories head this unit, as the Gators look to be flat stacked on the outside, while depth inside could prove to be an issue, especially in SEC play.
- This leads to the first question: Can Florida hold up at defensive tackle?
Brantley and Ivie are no longer there to fill in the holes, leaving their jobs to a pair of redshirt juniors in Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark. Those are very capable candidates for the starting jobs, and both played well in mostly second-string roles last season. The only real question for Bryan and Clark is how well they will handle taking on full-time starting roles, as the two have combined for just six starts in their careers. Behind them, things are a little bit cloudy.
Junior Cece Jefferson and sophomore Jachai Polite should take on similar jobs this season, continuing the Jon Bullard-type role on the defensive line. Both have the ability to move in and out, but lack the size to be run-stuffers on the inside. These two could be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks when they get on the field together.
After those four, Florida lacks in experience more so than in numbers. Redshirt sophomores Luke Ancrum and Richerd Desir-Jones are the only remaining non-freshman options, and neither has shown anything too promising so far in their careers. Ancrum had a good performance in the Orange and Blue Debut and was praised by his teammates for making strides in the spring, but he still has to translate it into a real game. Desir-Jones is still learning, as he transitioned from offensive guard to defensive tackle following the 2016 season. At 6-4, 292 pounds, he already has the size to compete up front, and he competed relatively well in the spring game, but his impact will be determined on how well his technique develops at the new position.
With so little returning experience at defensive tackle, the door opens for three freshmen to earn immediate playing time. Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton and Elijah Conliffe all have the size and talent to take on the SEC as freshmen, but with so little experience, there are still so many unknowns. If these three stay healthy and make a quick transition to the college game, defensive tackle could become a position of strength by season’s end.
- Will an elite pass rusher emerge?
The Gators were fourth in the SEC last season with 31 sacks as a team, but things were pretty much distributed evenly across the board, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but no one stood out as an elite, get to the quarterback type of guy. Several showed the potential to be that guy last season and in the spring, and with another year under their belts, this could be the season for those players.
Jefferson, redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga and sophomore Antonneous Clayton are the obvious candidates heading into the 2017 season.
Zuniga started out last season on a mission, as he racked up five sacks in the first five games. Granted, four of those came against UMass and North Texas, but he was having one of the best seasons of any defensive player in the country at that point. While all of his sacks came in the first half of the season, he still led the team with five and while SEC play was not as kind to his sack numbers, he continued to get to the backfield and lead Florida with 11 quarterback hurries. He was only second to Caleb Brantley with 8.5 tackles for loss on the season.
Zuniga was tabbed as one of the biggest defensive standouts throughout the spring by head coach Jim McElwain, as he referred to him as a “dominant force” on the defensive line. Taking on a starting role in 2017 and playing his second season in the SEC should help him become the elite pass rusher Florida is looking for.
Jefferson and Clayton came in as the biggest names in their respective classes and are looking to live up to the hype this season. Jefferson had a good freshman season, totaling 28 tackles, with 8.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks. With his first season under his belt, the former five-star recruit was expected to take off as a sophomore, but he remained around the same as he adjusted to his new role playing both defensive end and defensive tackle. He had 30 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and just 1.5 sacks in 2016.
In the spring, Jefferson shed the weight he previously put on to play defensive tackle, so while he will still be needed inside at times this season, his focus should shift back to the outside where he is obviously more comfortable and fit for. With that, this season will be his time to prove himself as the player he was expected to be.
Clayton, on the other hand, had a bit of a disappointing start to his career after coming in undersized and nearly redshirting before playing in just five games over the last half of the season due to amounting injuries on defense. He had three tackles and three quarterback hurries in his freshman season.
Now, he has bulked up his frame and gotten more comfortable in the defense, which made him a force in the spring. He led all of Florida’s defenders with five total tackles in the spring game, putting up four of them against the first-team offense. He was also one of three players to record a sack in the game, and could’ve easily had a couple more had it not been for spring game rules. Clayton is out to prove himself this season, and yes, opposing quarterbacks should be worried.
Along with those guys, Polite, junior Keivonnis Davis and redshirt senior Jordan Sherit will be in the mix at end as well. With so much pass rushing talent, there is no reason the Gators shouldn’t get to the quarterback early and often this season.
Up Next: Linebacker