Florida Gators National Signing Day preview: defensive line

The secret sauce to the SEC’s preeminence over the last 15 years, as well FSU’s post-Bowden rebirth and the rise of Clemson, is great defensive line play. In an era where offenses force defenses to account for more of the field than ever, having a line that can disrupt the backfield on its own is essential to being elite.

Looking ahead to National Signing Day, I’ve covered the Florida offense — quarterback, running back, wide receivers/tight ends, and offensive line — but now it’s time to start the defensive phase with the guys in the trenches.

All recruiting rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite, which balances recruiting rankings from all of the major services.

  • Departing: Jordan Sherit, Taven Bryan, Jordan Smith, Richerd Desir-Jones
  • Returning: RSR Khairi Clark, SR Cece Jefferson, RJR Jabari Zuniga, RJR Luke Ancrum, JR Antonneous Clayton, JR Jachai Polite, SO T.J. Slaton, SO Elijah Conliffe, SO Kyree Cambell, RFR Zachary Carter
  • Suspension limbo: RJR Keivonnis Davis
  • Newly eligible: RSO Marlon Dunlap
  • Signed: None
  • Committed: None
  • Targets: DT Nesta Silveria, 4-star (0.9507); DT Coynis Miller, 4-star (0.9390); DE Andrew Chatfield, 4-star (0.9196); DE Malcolm Lamar, 4-star (0.9158); DE Caleb Tannor, 4-star (0.8958); DT Emmit Gooden, 4-star JUCO, (0.8933); DT Noah Jefferson, 3-star JUCO (0.8892); DE Dorian Gerald, 3-star JUCO (0.8840); DE Malik Langham, 3-star (0.8827); DE Caleb Johnson, 3-star (0.8738); DE Fabien Lovett, 3-star (0.8735)

There is reason to like what the Gators have coming back on the defensive line. Jefferson and Zuniga are one of the better defensive end pairs in the conference. After them, the position has some good potential for Sal Sunseri to work with. Polite needs refinement, but he’s a fantastic athlete with an impossibly high motor. Clayton and Carter have high ceilings that perhaps the new coaching staff will help them reach. Clark is a skilled big body inside, while Jim McElwain’s “Bam-Bam Boys” of Slaton and Conliffe along with Campbell made a promising trio of defensive tackles a year ago.

The problem is, there just isn’t proven depth. So much of the optimist’s take on what’s returning is based on projection. You can see that Dan Mullen and his guys are concerned about getting some help right away because they’re after three JUCO linemen in Noah Jefferson, Dorian Gerald, and Emmit Gooden.

Making matters worse, none of the horses that Florida’s been chasing have made it into the barn yet. To their credit, the new coaches have been hustling. However, since they’re pursuing guys that other major programs are also going hard at, defensive line is a place Florida will be sweating it out on signing day.

The biggest coup they could pull is flipping Silvera from Miami. It already was a major win to get him on campus over the weekend, and he and teammate Chatfield from American Heritage in Fort Lauderdale could be bellwethers regarding if the new coaches can recruit South Florida as well as the old ones did. Staff holdover JaJuan Seider is the point man on both, which means the tight ends coach is just as important to the future of the defensive line in some ways as the actual defensive line coach Sunseri is.

Other weekend visitors included the Calebs, Tannor and Johnson. The former had a good visit and had conversations about playing outside linebacker in Todd Grantham’s new scheme. The Gators won’t play base 3-4 all the time — they play enough spread teams that they’ll be in nickel quite a lot — but they need guys who can play that hybrid DE/OLB position that Randy Shannon and Geoff Collins didn’t really use. Johnson and Malik Langham would fit that kind of role as well.

The final weekend of the recruiting cycle is when Florida will try to close the deal some of its targets. Chatfield is visiting this coming weekend, but February 2 should bring Miller, Gerald, Lovett, and Jefferson to Gainesville. Miller is the only major target besides Silvera who is presently committed, as he has pledged his services to Auburn. The fact that he’s still going to take a visit to Florida probably means the Gators aren’t out of the running for him, though.

Ultimately, the defensive line is a big question mark. It’s too early to say with any degree of certainty how many linemen will end up signing and who’ll they’ll be. It’s also hard to project how many of the current players will be top-shelf linemen outside of the ones we already know about in Clark, Jefferson, and Zuniga.

The new strength training program under Nick Savage will probably go a long way to sorting some of that out. Late in his tenure, McElwain started looking for size above all else in recruiting. It netted those massive guys in Slaton, Conliffe, and Campbell, but are any of them special beyond their heights and weights? We still have to wait to find out.

So too do we have to wait to find out if the light will turn on for Clayton to fulfill his enormous potential, what Carter has following his redshirt, and how much of a role UNC transfer Dunlap will play. Mullen going hard after top linemen is something any UF staff should do every year, but it’s hard to interpret the coaches’ pursuit of JUCO transfers along the line as anything but a vote of skepticism about the present depth chart. Gerald was at least a McElwain target as well; Jefferson’s offer came a few days after Mullen was hired, while Gooden, a former commit to Mullen at Mississippi State, is a more recent addition to the target list.

This position is one that’s going to come down to the wire on National Signing Day. This will be a theme on the defensive side of the ball, too. Much of the offense is settled with some other puzzle pieces falling into place — wide receiver Justin Watkins committed over the weekend, for instance — but the defense is where the action will be as the recruiting cycle comes to a close.