GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida defense lost a lot of big names from the 2016 team.
Linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye. Defensive linemen Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. All are off to the NFL with the hopes of continuing their football careers.
So where does that put the Gators? Simply put, a lot of younger faces must step up.
Here are five candidates capable of having that breakout season.
1) DB Chauncey Gardner
Chauncey Gardner came onto the scene late during his freshman year after injuries to safeties Marcus Maye and Nick Washington. He finished the year leaving fans wanting more.
In the final three games of the year — facing Florida State, Alabama and Iowa — Gardner recorded 17 total tackles and 3 interceptions. He earned Outback Bowl MVP honors after intercepting two fourth-quarter passes, returning the first for a touchdown.
Gardner can play anywhere in the secondary. He spent the spring playing opposite Duke Dawson at cornerback but likely will play either safety or nickel when Florida opens its season against Michigan on Sept. 2.
2) LB Vosean Joseph
Vosean Joseph spent most of his freshman season at Florida playing on special teams, but he made the most of his opportunities. Overall, Joseph recorded 13 tackles (1 for loss) and broke up a pass. He earned his first career start during the Outback Bowl against Iowa and finished the game with 6 tackles.
The main takeaway from his first year: Joseph can hit. Hard.
Cue up the Danny Etling tackle.
With another year under his belt and a strong spring to show for it — he had 3 tackles and an interception with the first-team defense during the spring game — Joseph has a chance to start at one of the outside linebacker spots or be a first-off-the-bench-type player.
3) DE Antonneous Clayton
Antonneous Clayton knows he has to prove himself. The former Rivals 5-star prospect had a lackluster freshman year, recording just 3 tackles and 3 quarterback hurries in five games. He was considered for a redshirt early in the year because he had trouble fully grasping the playbook.
One year later and about 30 pounds heavier, Clayton seems primed to have the opportunity to prove he can live up to the hype. The shifty 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman spent most of spring camp with the second team, but his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage should give him opportunities to get valuable reps during the season.
He recorded 4 total tackles — including a sack — during the spring game.
4) DT Taven Bryan
Taven Bryan has waited his turn. He sat behind Jon Bullard, Brantley, Ivie and Cox over the last two years as a rotational defensive tackle, coming into games when the starters needed the occasional breather. In 25 career games (just 3 starts), Bryan has 27 tackles and 1 sack.
But with the veterans in front of him off in the NFL and Bryan having a solid spring camp, his best opportunity to make an impact has come.
At 6-foot-5 and 293 pounds, Bryan has an explosive first step for an interior lineman and the strength to compete against opposing offensive linemen in the SEC. His discipline and consistency during games will be the key to him making — and staying in — the starting lineup.
5) LB David Reese
David Reese was thrown into the starting role midway through the season after Davis and Anzalone went down with injuries, and he lived up to expectations.
The freshman started four straight games and recorded 34 of his with 49 tackles in that span. This included back-to-back double-digit outings against South Carolina (11 tackles) and LSU (12 tackles) that earned him a pair of SEC Freshman of the Week honors. He also returned a blocked extra point during the SEC Championship Game against Alabama before sitting out the Outback Bowl with a pair of wrist injuries.
Now the question is, can he handle those starting responsibilities for a full season?
Reese missed spring camp with a wrist injury, but he has shown he’s a consistent tackler able of handling middle linebacker responsibilities.