Shelton equipped to handle the challenge ahead

Gators defensive tackle Antonio Shelton finds himself in a bit of a challenging situation.

A transfer from Penn State, Shelton must learn a new defensive scheme, get used to living in a vastly different part of the country, get acclimated to a new set of teammates and adjust to the new techniques he’s being taught by defensive line coach David Turner. He was given only about nine months of time to do all of that prior to UF’s first game against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4.

Oh, and he doesn’t have the luxury of easing his way into the program. Due to recruiting shortcomings at defensive tackle a few years ago, the Gators found themselves with some promising young talent at the position but zero proven veterans.

That’s where Shelton and Auburn transfer Daquan Newkirk come in. They were brought in as one-year rentals to patch up the interior of the defensive line in the present and buy time for the future at the position to develop.

Shelton wasn’t brought to Florida to just be another guy in the defensive tackle room. He was brought to UF to be the guy right away, both with his play on the field and his leadership off of it.

“I think one of the things you do when you look for transfers, for us, we’re bringing in transfers of guys that are going to make immediate impacts,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Where are you going to have certain depth issues or certain things? That’s how you pay attention within transfers. You’re bringing in transfers that are going to help. [It’s] need-based to bring them in, not just bring in anybody.

“They understood coming in that they are some of the older players in that group and that meeting room now and in that position unit. And so, they are expected to have leadership qualities. They’re not expected to come in and just act like the new guy. They got to learn the program and what it is fast, but we have very high expectations for them, and they’ve really shown that.”

While that might seem like a ton of pressure to put on a guy that has never played a down in an orange and blue uniform, Rodger Elander, his head coach at Westerville North High School in Columbus, Ohio, believes Shelton has what it takes to thrive in this role.

“I think it’d be challenging for anybody, but he’s the type of kid, he’s experienced enough football player and a smart enough football player, he’ll pick things up quickly,” Elander said. “I know different places call the same things – they’re using different terminology. So, it’s just a matter of picking up the terminology and then going out and playing. I think he’ll be able to do that fairly quickly and do a good job for Florida.”

Elander coached Shelton – who announced prior to spring practice that he will be wearing his middle name, “Valentino,” on his jersey for personal reasons – for all four years of his high school career. He immediately recognized that Shelton had what it takes to be a scholarship player at the Division 1 level as a freshman. He was simply able to do things athletically that most other kids his size could only dream of doing.

Of course, it takes much more than just being big, fast and strong to play major college football. If it were that simple, all-you-can-eat-buffets, gyms and tracks would always have lines that wrap around the building.

To earn a scholarship to any college program, let alone a Power Five school, it takes a rare dedication to the sport and a willingness to sacrifice fun outings with family and friends for the sake of improving as a player. Elander said Shelton has always shown an intense commitment to football and his future. He was named a team captain as a senior for his efforts.

“He did everything the team did as far as lifting and conditioning and then went out on his own and went to an outside gym to put in extra work, working on drills, working on skills, getting ready for combines and stuff like that,” he said. “He really proved himself at those combines, and that’s what got him a lot of attention.

“He made it a point very early on his freshman year that he wanted to earn a scholarship so that he didn’t have to worry about paying for school. As a freshman, I thought he had the physical potential to be a scholarship player, but his grades his freshman year left room for improvement. He did everything he had to do to make sure he qualified, got the necessary ACT score and stuff like that to be eligible to play right away.”

His work ethic and dedication make him an effective leader. He doesn’t just tell other guys what to do; he shows them the way. His teammates feel motivated to keep up with him.

“He grew into a leadership role in high school as a player through his work ethic,” Elander said. “He grew into a leader at Penn State because of the same thing. He had experience, and the guys looked to him. I think he became more vocal as a leader for his group when he was at Penn State. I think it was just a natural progression from moving from a backup to a guy who was in the rotation to a guy they were counting on, and he kind of relished that role as being considered a leader. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be able to do that once he gets comfortable working with the group he is now.”

While Shelton is an intense and focused player and student, he’s laid back and extremely approachable off of the field. He’s a huge music connoisseur, as he likes to write music and watch music videos in his spare time. He served as Westerville North’s team DJ. That’s where his social media handle @_groovy55 originated.

“They wanted music while they were working out, and I had a couple basic rules,” Elander said. “They could play whatever they wanted as long as there were no cuss words in there. He made sure he had the appropriate settings on his phone for his music to play without the cuss words.”

Shelton’s recruiting process was something of a slow build. As a junior, Bowling Green, Ohio and Toledo showed interest. Then Illinois, Rutgers and Cincinnati entered the mix. He committed to Illinois shortly after his junior year ended. However, Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was fired a week prior to the 2015 season after an internal investigation into accusations of player mistreatment that included forcing players to play through serious injuries. Interim head coach Bill Cubit was also fired after the season.

With the Illinois program in shambles, Elander urged Shelton to open up his recruitment. Shelton initially resisted and wanted to stay solid to Illinois, but he eventually heeded his coach’s advice and decommitted about a week before signing day. He committed to Penn State six days later.

According to Elander, it was Penn State’s storied history, consistency and coaches that drew him to the school.

While the Nittany Lions liked him enough to offer him a scholarship, the recruiting analysts never gave him much respect. He checked in at No. 1,417 in the final composite rankings.

Elander believes Shelton’s low ranking can be attributed to playing on some bad teams. Westerville North won a grand total of five games during Shelton’s four years of high school and endured a pair of winless seasons in 2012 and 2015. Obviously, players who play for winning teams that are loaded with Division 1 talent are going to draw more eyeballs and earn more favorable reviews than players from losing teams.

While he’s far from a star player that NFL scouts are gushing over, there’s no doubting that Shelton was far better than the 1,417th best player from that class.

He enrolled at Penn State in 2016, two years prior to the new NCAA rule that allows freshmen to play in up to four games and still retain their redshirt eligibility. So, he didn’t play in a single game in 2016.

Shelton appeared in six games in 2017 and made 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack. His role increased further in 2018 when he played in all 13 games and made one start.

He started 12 games in 2019 and saved his best for last in 2020. He started all nine games and made 4.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks, a figure which ranked second on the team, an impressive feat for an interior lineman. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.

Elander said Shelton’s progress is largely due to being able to focus solely on playing defensive tackle. Because his team was so short on talent, Elander had to play him on both sides of the ball in high school. He became a master of his craft at Penn State.

“He bought into becoming a technician, learning the techniques, applying those and taking his natural abilities and maximizing them to his potential,” Elander said. “He just did a good job, keep plugging away, working at it and becoming a better and better player as his career went on.”

Shelton decided to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility the NCAA awarded athletes amid the pandemic, and he decided to spend his final season somewhere else.

As soon as he and Newkirk entered the transfer portal, the Gators started watching film on them and called their coaches to gather information on them. They were looking for not just two great players that will help them this season but two guys that will serve as an extension of the coaching staff to the younger players.

“During the process, it’s like recruiting all over again,” Turner said. “You talk to those guys. You want to find out, No. 1, why they’re leaving; No. 2, what are their goals; and, No. 3, would it be a fit for you? Both of those guys checked all three boxes, and I’ll be honest, I’m glad to have them. They’ve been really good for the younger guys, and I think they’ve meshed really good with our group of guys.”

https://twitter.com/_groovy55/status/1346855133137805312

Shelton provides the Gators with a 6-foot-3, 318-pound brick wall in the middle of the defense that will help replace the loss of Kyree Campbell. He should help shore up a run defense that turned in some strong performances last season but also gave up more than 200 yards on three occasions, including a 435-yard fiasco against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

He’s already made progress in the weight room. He posted on Twitter earlier this month that he bench-pressed 490 pounds, a personal record. For context, freshman tackle Desmond Watson only weighs about 50 pounds less than that.

Shelton’s job is unflashy but so very important. If all goes according to plan, he won’t put up huge statistics or make highlight reels. He’ll be so dominant in the trenches that offenses will have to double-team him. That will allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

That plan apparently worked out well in the spring.

“We can flow over the top better, get in our gaps better,” linebacker Amari Burney said. “When they’re getting double-teamed, we get to flow over. They come off the double team, that’s an easy tackle for a loss for them. So, offense, really, they can’t do nothing with us.”

Of course, Shelton’s longest-lasting impact on the program should be how he mentors the five first- or second-year tackles behind him. Their progress will go a long way toward determining how successful defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s rebuild is, which in turn will determine how successful Mullen is.

Mullen liked what he saw from Shelton and Newkirk in the spring.

“I think they bring a sense of maturity, and they show the younger guys how to work,” Mullen said. “They come out, they have a maturity and an understanding of how to prepare and how to work every single day. They brought an unbelievable attitude. Both of those guys have brought an unbelievable attitude within the team and with their work ethic.

“I think those guys will make major impacts for us this year.”

The Gators are putting a heavy burden on Shelton’s shoulders, but he’s up to the challenge.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.