GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators defense will have a slew of younger faces in 2017 as it attempts to replace eight starters from last season who are now chasing their NFL careers.
But there is one position group returning with an influx of experience: defensive line. The Gators return eight players who could factor into the rotation and also have four freshmen looking to contribute immediately in 2017.
Here is a closer look at the position.
CeCeJefferson burst onto the scene during his freshman season and hasn’t held back since. In 26 career games (10 starts), the 6-foot-1 defensive end has 59 total tackles (15 for loss), 4 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries. He heads into fall camp as a likely starter at defensive end.
Jabari Zuniga led Florida with 5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries as a redshirt freshman in 2016, and a slew of national outlets are pegging him as an SEC defensive lineman poised for a breakout season. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Zuniga has the speed and power to compete with top offensive linemen and get behind the line of scrimmage.
Taven Bryan spent most of his first three years with the Gators as a rotational player, coming in whenever a starter needed a breather. He has just 27 tackles to his name in 25 career appearances. But heading into 2017, Bryan is Florida’s most veteran interior defensive lineman and is penciled in as the Gators’ starting defensive tackle. Teammates and coaches alike praise his work ethic and his motor, and Bryan has shown flashes of success throughout camp. He just needs to show that effort and drive on a consistent basis.
Like Bryan, Khairi Clark has been a rotational player the last two seasons but is getting his chance to move up on the depth chart. A 6-2, 319-pound redshirt junior, Clark has played in 27 games (four starts) and has 32 tackles and 2 career sacks to his name. He should take the lead role at nose tackle early in the season while the freshmen behind him on the depth chart get acclimated to the college level.
Antonneous Clayton had a disappointing freshman season, to say the least. Clayton, a 4-star defensive end and the No. 26 overall recruit in the Class of 2017, played in just five games and recorded a mere 3 tackles and 3 quarterback hurries after struggling to adapt to the pace of the game. This spring, however, seemed to have been a breakthrough camp for Clayton. He has a better grasp of the playbook, and he looked quick off the edge against the first-team offensive line — a group coach Jim McElwain has called the strength of the team. He likely will start the season on the second team but should get increased reps as the season progresses.
Florida signed four defensive linemen this season and each has a chance to be part of the rotation. They are:
- Kyree Campbell, a 3-star defensive tackle who enrolled early.
- Elijah Conliffe, a 4-star signee and the No. 18 defensive tackle prospect in the Class of 2017.
- Zach Carter, a 4-star signee and the No. 3 strongside defensive end prospect in the Class of 2017
- T.J. Slaton, a 4-star signee and the No. 69 overall player in the Class of 2017. He was listed as an offensive lineman by most recruiting outlets, but the Gators plan to use Slaton as a defensive tackle.
The rest of the group
In addition to the players mentioned above, redshirt senior Jordan Sherit, junior Keivonnis Davis and sophomore Jachai Polite should be in the defensive line rotation as well.
Sherit has played in 32 career games (11 starts) but has battled with injuries throughout his career. He led Florida defensive linemen with 38 tackles despite only playing in 10 games in 2016. Davis started five games in 2016 and recorded 27 tackles — fourth-most among Florida defensive linemen. Polite played in 12 games as a reserve defensive tackle and finished with 11 tackles and 2 sacks.
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