GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators next season will take the field with a brand new head coach in Dan Mullen, a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham and very likely a new 3-4 defensive scheme.
However, a lot of the players that will form that defensive identity are already on the roster, with the Gators returning a majority of its youth-laden defense for 2018.
Positions and roles may change, especially in the front seven, but a lot of faces and talent will still remain.
Here’s a closer look at what the Gators return on defense next season and how those players could fit into Grantham’s system.
The defensive line was one of the Gators’ more veteran units last season and will likely see the biggest overhaul. Gone are senior Jordan Sherit and redshirt junior Taven Bryan. Junior CeCe Jefferson could leave early for a chance at the NFL, as well.
But returning is a crop of underclassmen and a couple upperclassmen who held their own this season.
The main names returning are rising senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark and rising junior defensive end Jabari Zuniga, both of whom were heavily involved in the defensive line rotation this season.
The crop of freshman defensive lineman called the “Bam Bam Kids” by the previous coaching staff — tackles T.J. Slaton, Elijah Conliffe and Kyree Campbell along with end Zachary Carter — all have the size and speed to fit well on the defensive line in a 3-4 scheme.
Former 5-star end Antonneous Clayton will return for his junior year after having just a minor role during his first two seasons on campus.
This is where things can get tricky for the Gators. While they only lose one player who had significant playing time in former walk-on Cristian Garcia, the depth at linebacker is still pretty scarce heading into next season.
David Reese, who will head into his junior year, is the most proven of the bunch after coming off a season with a team-best 102 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. He will fit fine as one of two middle linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Jeremiah Moon has the athleticism and coverage skills to play as a hybrid outside linebacker/edge rusher, but he still has room to grow. Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson also both return.
The key is the depth behind them. Freshman Nick Smith, who missed the entire season with an injury, will return next season. Two other freshmen in Ventrell Miller and James Houston — both of whom were part of the preseason credit card fraud scandal and were not with the team because of it — could return next season depending on how their status with the university, new coach Dan Mullen and athletic director Scott Stricklin plays out.
The Gators’ secondary was the epitome of youth last year. After safety Marcell Harris suffered a season-ending Achilles injury before the season and safety Nick Washington re-injured his shoulder against LSU, Florida was down to just one senior in the defensive backfield in Duke Dawson.
Now, Florida’s underclassman-laden defensive back group will aim to improve next season.
The cornerback tandem of Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson will lead the way. Both impressed in their freshman year. Wilson recorded 10 pass breakups and had 34 total tackles. Henderson tied with Dawson for a team-best 4 interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns.
At safety, Chauncey Gardner showed improvement in the second half of the season and finished with 58 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. He’ll be a junior next season. Jeawon Taylor, also heading into his junior season, showed bursts of his potential late in the year, including a four-game stretch in which he recorded 29 tackles and an interception.
The Gators also return a group of freshmen in Shawn Davis, Brian Edwards, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart.