A lot has changed around Gainesville since the 2017 season. There’s a new coaching staff, a new system and a fresh start for every player in a Florida Gators uniform.
Maybe the old system didn’t fit them, maybe they didn’t get enough opportunities, maybe they were still developing. Whatever the reason, there are guys at each position who are still waiting for their time to shine, and now could be that time.
These stories will take a look at the players Florida needs to step up at each position this season, starting with defense.
Defensive End: Antonneous Clayton
It almost feels like a broken record saying this could finally be the year for Clayton, but this time it might actually be true. Clayton came to Florida as one of the top recruits in his class, but going into his junior season, he has just 10 tackles and one sack to his name. He had so much potential when he arrived on campus, but an illness caused him to lose a significant amount of weight, and under the nutrition and training program of the previous staff, it seemed he never fully recovered. He may have benefited from the Nick Savage training program more than anyone, as he now weighs in at 254 pounds and looks healthier than ever. He made strides in the spring and put it on full display with six tackles and two sacks in the Orange and Blue Game. The Gators may have some depth at the position, but Clayton could be a real difference maker in getting to the quarterback if he can finally show some consistency.
Defensive Tackle: Tedarrell Slaton
Slaton is another player who draws major interest. At 6-4, 334, how could he not? He comes into his sophomore season after putting up 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry last year. He also comes in with a changed body. Yes, another Savage success story. Savage cannot be given all the credit though, because Slaton started working to transform his body before the first workouts with the new staff even began. He knew he needed to make a change after weighing in at 370 around the time of the Florida State game in 2017. Still, 334 pounds is a lot of weight to carry around. Slaton makes it look easy. He has impeccable athleticism for such a large human being. He really stood out in the spring as he often moved better than guys 100 pounds lighter than him. The athleticism and ability is there, but as with many young players, the effort and attention to detail falls short at times. Slaton got used to simply dominating inferior players in high school, but now everyone is good, and he has to rely on more than just being the biggest guy on the field. Once that comes around, he could be a force to be reckoned with on this defense.
Linebacker: Rayshad Jackson
If someone would have said a year ago that Rayshad Jackson would be in line to start at linebacker in 2018, most would have laughed, or cried. Jackson came to Florida as another one of Randy Shannon’s “projects”. Maybe the talent Shannon saw in him way back when was right after all. It just took a few years, and a new staff, to bring it out of him. The redshirt junior has just 16 tackles in a reserve spot so far in his career, but it was hard to tell by his performance in the spring. He often looked like the most capable linebacker on the team in practice and worked his way into playing first-team snaps when it was all said and done. Whether he ultimately earns that starting spot or not, Jackson’s emergence is a huge boost to the unit.
Cornerback: Brian Edwards
The Gators are set at the starting cornerback positions with rising stars Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson. The real question is, who will come in behind them? Right now, it’s looking like Edwards will be one of those guys as he will play a much bigger role in his sophomore season after mostly playing on special teams a year ago. He and freshman Trey Dean stood out behind Wilson and Henderson in the spring and answered some of those lingering questions about depth at the position. It’s not something anyone around the Florida program wants to think about, but Edwards could be one injury away from starting this season, and if that happens, he needs to be ready.
Safety: Shawn Davis
With a new staff and little experience at the position, the safeties had a lot to prove in the spring, and still have a lot to prove over the next couple months. Jeawon Taylor has the most experience of anyone, and he didn’t even get his first career start until halfway through the 2017 season when the unit became depleted with injuries. Meanwhile, Davis got some key playing time in the first game of his freshman season against Michigan, but the previous staff seemed to lose confidence in him and he was put into a reserve role up until he got his first start in the final game. With Taylor still battling a shoulder injury, even more opportunities opened up for Davis in the spring, and he took full advantage. He led all Florida players with nine tackles in the spring game, which was just two shy of his tackle total for the entire season last year. Not only can he tackle, he’s always looking for a chance to get the ball in his hands. He’s the pick-six threat the Gators need in the defensive backfield. Now that he has some confidence and has caught up to the speed of the college game, Todd Grantham’s aggressive style of defense plays right into Davis’ hands.