After losing eight defensive starters from the 2016 team, the Florida Gators defense was expected to take a step back this year. The spring game gave a reason for optimism that it won’t be too big of a step.
There may not be as many established names on defense going into the season, but the Gators are looking to change that. Several guys made their names known on Friday night.
While Florida is known for hanging its hat on defensive backs, the linebackers and defensive linemen were the ones who stood out.
Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone have moved on and sophomore standout David Reese is still sidelined with an injury, but it didn’t feel like the Gators were thin at the position.
Jeremiah Moon, a redshirt freshman who missed last season after undergoing thumb surgery, introduced himself for the first time. It was a good first impression. Moon tied for a team-high five tackles against the first-team offense in the Orange and Blue Debut.
He showed the speed to cover tight ends and made a nice play to break up a pass from Feleipe Franks to C’yontai Lewis. Moon even has the versatility to play the nickel position for the Gators when needed. Now at 6-4, 228 pounds, he added 20 pounds over the offseason and is still working on his size. He could be a huge asset on defense this season.
“Jeremiah Moon? Pshhh, the guy’s athletic,” said sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner. “He’s a freak. Last year we didn’t see it because of the injury, but this year Jeremiah is definitely gonna be a factor. He’s a great player. He can cover, he can also come off the edge and he can also get off blocks. That’s the key playing in the SEC.”
Sophomore Vosean Joseph and redshirt sophomore Rayshad Jackson also impressed at linebacker. Joseph came up huge at the end of his freshman season as the Gators were battling so many injuries on defense. He will be a much bigger factor this season.
He led the first-team defense with three tackles, a pass break up and had the lone interception of the night on a pass deflected to him by Duke Dawson. Jackson joined Moon with five tackles on the night along with a tackle for a loss and two pass breakups.
The defensive ends came to play on Friday, accepting the challenge from Jim McElwain to step up the pass rush. Antonneous Clayton, Jabari Zuniga, and Luke Ancrum recorded one sack apiece. Clayton had a chance to tack on a couple more but was held back by spring game rules. He was in the backfield all night long.
Cece Jefferson, the most experienced of the defensive ends, tied Joseph for the Orange team-high three tackles with 1.5 tackles for a loss.
Even with the losses of Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox, and Joey Ivie, this defensive line is continuing to develop and could turn some heads this season.
“This unit can be really, really, really good,” said Clayton. “I mean, we have a lot of guys who have a lot of potential. CeCe, Keivonnis Davis, Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark, Jachai Polite, Jordan Smith, me, of course. We have a lot of guys that can make tremendous plays. We have a lot of guys that if somebody were to leave, he’s just going to step up. It’s just natural, and that’s pretty much what’s been the tradition here at Florida.”
Without a long list of established star defensive players going into 2017, Florida is learning it cannot lean on one guy or one position group to get the job done. There will be growing pains as players continue to develop, but there is a world of potential within this young defense.
“From day one, like I said, we’ve been improving,” said Gardner. “You could see from the D-Line to the linebackers to the safeties to the corners, and we all play as one. No DBU, no LBU. It’s just all together as a Florida defense.”