GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Here are the defensive position grades for No. 15 Florida at the midway point of the season.
Defensive end: B+
Jordan Sherit played at a high level in the first month of the season, registering 20 tackles and 3 sacks. He’s missed the last two games because of a knee injury, but CeCe Jefferson has filled in nicely. Defensive end is Jefferson’s more natural position, and he’s made 9 tackles in Sherit’s absence. Bryan Cox Jr. also is dealing with an injury and hasn’t been able to live up to his preseason hype. SEC analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland listed him as the No. 2 defensive lineman in the SEC before the season. Fortunately for the Gators, Jabari Zuniga, another young player, has emerged. His 5 sacks lead the team and are tied for the most in the country by a freshman. Sophomore Keivonnis Davis also has been solid.
Defensive tackle: A-
Through the first four weeks of the fall, it was the Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie show. According to Pro Football Focus on Oct. 11, Brantley and Ivie ranked first and second in pass-rush productivity among SEC defensive tackles. Brantley is having the breakout season most anticipated from him, even though that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Like Sherit, Ivie has missed the last two games with a thumb injury and likely will return at Arkansas. There’s a drop-off when Taven Bryan and/or Khairi Clark spell Brantley and Ivie. However, Jachai Polite is turning heads as a true freshman. He was a redshirt candidate coming into the season. Polite has 2 sacks and has seen action in every game.
It’s once again a two-man band for the Gators in 2016, and their group has played great. Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis are a dynamic duo. Their chemistry on the field is as evident as their talent. Anzalone has fully recovered from his season-ending shoulder surgery last year and developed into an elite linebacker. Davis has continued his high level of play. He is nursing an ankle sprain through the bye week. If Davis is sidelined, Florida will turn to true freshman David Reese. The early enrollee has 14 tackles in six games. Senior Daniel McMillian and redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson have been regulars in the rotation. A converted safety, Johnson has made a successful transition to linebacker and can move in space.
Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson — is there anything else that needs to be said? These two have been spectacular this season. They’re not only the most productive pair of cornerbacks in the country but they also could go down as Florida’s best tandem in school history when 2016 is over. In the years they played together, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins collectively did not match the 7 interceptions that Tabor and Wilson already have. Neither did Lito Sheppard and Keiwan Ratliff. Outside of a bad second half at Tennessee, Duke Dawson has done a good job at nickelback. The Gators don’t have a lot of depth behind those three, but true freshman Chauncey Gardner should be capable of taking over as a starter next season.
As expected, this position is the weakest link on defense. That’s what happens when you lose a first-round pick (Keanu Neal) with no obvious replacement to fill that void. Marcus Maye hasn’t been as productive as he was in 2015, but he’s still performing well and has 35 tackles. Marcell Harris and Nick Washington have split time at the other spot. They have combined for 39 tackles and 2 interceptions. However, one of them hasn’t separated from the other, and that’s been disappointing. Both might become full-time starters in 2017 after Maye graduates. True freshman Jeawon Taylor, who has played in every game, also could figure into that conversation.
Injuries have hurt the defense lately and a few starters need to get healthy, but this unit has more talent and production than last year’s group did at this point in the season. The Gators rank in the top 5 nationally in total defense, passing defense, scoring defense and opponent first downs.