Florida Gators fall camp preview: Defense

The Florida Gators open fall camp this week in preparation for the 2017 football season.

Over the next two days Gator Country will preview the offense, defense and special teams to get you ready for the start of camp and the upcoming season.

Monday we previewed the offense. Today we turn our attention to the defense.

Defensive End

The Players

Strong side

RS Senior – Jordan Sherit
RS Sophomore – Jabari Zuniga
Sophomore – Jachai Polite
Freshman – Zachary Carter

Weakside

Junior – CeCe Jefferson
Junior – Keivonnis Davis
Sophomore – Antonneous Clayton
RS Freshman – Jordan Smith

For years we’ve written about the embarrassment of riches the secondary has had. This year the same can be said of defensive end. As a whole the group is gifted with speed and athleticism throughout the depth chart. There’s no break for opposing offensive tackles when the starters come out.

Sherit is coming back from a knee injury. He’s been through it before and is back on track for his final season. Sherit, hands down, played his best football last season before he was hurt. He will likely step into a starting role at strongside defensive end but a rotation with Zuniga and Carter should keep everyone fresh.

Zuniga peaked early last year. He led the team in sacks (5) but didn’t register one over the last two months (8 games) of the season. He was a raw prospect when he enrolled at Florida, but grew a lot during his redshirt season. He’ll look to be more consistent heading into his third year.

Carter was a huge get for the coaching staff last year. He has a rare mix of size (6-4, 263), speed and power. The good thing for him is that Florida has guys in front of him he can learn from and it will allow Carter to come along at his own pace. Make no mistake about it though; he’s capable and ready to play a role this season as a freshman.

Florida needs CeCe Jefferson to have a breakout season. A former five-star recruit, Jefferson flashed as a freshman before being asked to slide inside and play more tackle last year. Early on it showed that he was out of place. He played his best football when he was able to go back out on the edge.

After Jefferson might be the most intriguing prospect on the entire team. Antonneous Clayton didn’t play in the first four games and didn’t record a stat until Florida’s homecoming win over Missouri. He also tallied two quarterback hurries against the Tigers before his season ended in Tallahassee with a freak hand injury during warmups. Clayton has continued to pack on size to his frame and he looks the part of a SEC defensive lineman. Look for Clayton to be featured heavily in passing situations where he can pin his ears back and rush the passer.

Davis has shown ability as a pass rusher but he’s been inconsistent in setting the edge and containing the run. With so much competition at his position he needs to become more disciplined if he wants to keep earning playing time and not get passed up.

Smith has added size to his long, lean frame but is probably still a year away from making an impact on defense. He’ll still have his role on special teams.

Defensive Tackle

RS Junior – Taven Bryan
Sophomore – Jachai Polite
Freshman – Elijah Conliffe

Nose tackle

RS Junior – Khairi Clark
RS Sophomore – Luke Ancrum
Freshman – Kyree Campbell
Freshman – Tedarrell Slaton

Bryan and Clark return this season and move into starting roles. They’re both very experienced. Bryan has been lauded for his athleticism and size ever since he stepped foot on campus. He’s had to bide his time behind some very talented players the past two seasons but he’ll be turned loose in his fourth year in Gainesville.

Jachai Polite will be a swingman for Chris Rumph’s defensive line. He’s capable of playing both tackle and end, although he may prefer to play outside. He has the size to take on double teams inside and the discipline to set the edge against the run when playing end on running downs. He can also get pressure on passing downs from either position. He played in 12 games last year, recording 11 tackles and should continue to progress.

Conliffe is a physical specimen with speed to boot. It will be interesting to see how quickly he comes along in fall camp.

The same can be said for two other freshmen — Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slaton. Both are well over 320 pounds. Campbell played at a prep school last season, so he’s not as green as most freshman, but playing defensive line in the SEC is a different animal. It’s hard for freshman to make a big impact on the interior line in this league but the Gators need to find some answers behind Clark and Bryan.

Linebacker

Will

Sophomore – Vosean Joseph
Freshman – Lacedrick Brunson
Freshman – Nick Smith (had knee surgery a week before camp)

Mike

RS Sophomore – Rayshad Jackson
Sophomore – David Reese
Freshman – James Houston

Sam

RS Sophomore – Kylan Johnson
RS Freshman – Jeremiah Moon
Freshman – Ventrell Miller

In the past the Gators haven’t had to use a lot of three linebacker personnel because of how deep the secondary was. That’s not the case this season so expect to see a lot of Joseph, Reese and Johnson on the field at the same time.

Starting off with Johnson, wow. The high school safety turned college linebacker has packed on serious size this offseason. He looks like a SEC linebacker and still moves like he did when he played in the secondary. He’s a contender to have a breakout season.

Reese was an early enrollee prior to the 2016 season and we wrote about how much attention he was getting from Randy Shannon, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. That extra attention paid off when Reese was thrust into a starting position due to injury. He answered the bell starting the last five games of the season.

Joseph came on late but had one of the biggest highlights of the season, ejecting LSU quarterback Danny Etling from the playing field, which helped Florida hold LSU on downs and turned into a 98-yard TD strike a few plays later. Joseph has ability as a pass rusher, he’s physical and can hold his own in coverage. The Gators are set at the top of the depth chart here.

Don’t forget about Jeremiah Moon. Injuries sidelined him last season but he’s a freak and a player to watch closely in camp.

Defensive backs

Safety
RS Senior – Nick Washington
RS Freshman – Quincy Lenton
Freshman – Shawn Davis

Safety
Sophomore – Chauncey Gardner
Sophomore- Jeawon Taylor
Freshman – Donovan Stiner

Marcell Harris’ season ending Achilles’ injury really throws a wrench into Florida’s plans in the secondary. Harris was the Gators’ leading tackler a season ago and a veteran presence in the secondary and for the defense as a whole. Nick Washington can fill that leadership role but he’s not as vocal of a player as Harris.

The spot opposite Washington is wide open. Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton are two players that could jump in and fill that role. Lenton has dealt with a nagging foot injury so we’ll give Taylor the nod early.

Ideally, Florida would like one of those two, or a freshman, to step into the starting role opposite Washington. That would allow Chauncey Gardner and Duke Dawson to stay at cornerback/nickelback.

Cornerbacks

Senior – Duke Dawson
Senior – Joseph Putu
RS Freshman – McArthur Burnett
RS Freshman – Christopher McWilliams
Freshman – Marco Wilson
Freshman – C.J. Henderson

Nickel
Sophomore – Chauncey Gardner
Freshman – Brad Stewart
Freshman – Shawn Davis

Dawson is back for his senior season and he’s motivated to make it his best yet. Last year he embraced the role of starting nickel and excelled. He may have had an off game or two but, overall, he played fantastic.

Gardner, like Dawson, is versatile. He can play anywhere in the secondary, like Dawson, which will help Florida.

There’s no way around it, the Gators are going to have to rely on multiple freshmen in the secondary this season. Early returns on Marco Wilson and Brad Stewart have been eye opening and we expect those two to earn early playing time, if not starting positions.

Jim McElwain had joked about the offensive line having a “fast pass” to playing time in his first two seasons. Well, the fast pass will be passed on to the secondary this season. The young guys will need to be ready to go on September 2.

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC