GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida receiver Kadarius Toney showed last season he doesn’t need much open space to make defenders look silly while juking, cutting and changing direction on the way to extra yards and big plays.
But he couldn’t fool his own teammate during the Gators’ Orange & Blue spring game Saturday.
On the third series of the game, Toney took a wide receiver reverse from running back Iverson Clement and found himself one on one with junior Jachai Polite.
Polite, playing the stand-up rush end position in Florida’s new 3-4 defense, came unblocked off the right edge, waited out the play and then quickly closed in on Toney. It was an intriguing matchup between one of Florida’s top overall athletes and one of its most athletic defensive linemen.
Toney changed directions a couple of times while seemingly looking to get off a pass, but he couldn’t shake Polite and went down to the turf as he saw defensive end Antonneous Clayton closing in as well.
On the next play, redshirt junior defensive end Jabari Zuniga, who has been moved all around the line this spring, beat center T.J. McCoy for a lane to quarterback Kyle Trask for a sack.
Sure, it was one sequence in a generally meaningless spring game while going against a mix-and-match assortment of offensive linemen, but it was nonetheless reflective of how disruptive many feel this Florida defensive front could be in 2018. Especially with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s aggressive blitz calls giving opposing offensive linemen plenty to think about pre-snap.
“Coach has a lot of blitzes in here, so we’re going to get a lot of sacks this year. A lot of sacks,” Zuniga had said earlier in the week.
Later, Clayton, the top-rated defensive recruit in Florida’s 2016 signing class, closed the first half with back-to-back sacks of Trask. On the first one, he came around the left side and won a 1-on-1 matchup with two-year starting right tackle Jawaan Taylor before collapsing the pocket and wrapping up Trask.
On the next snap, Clayton drove Taylor back several steps and got his hand on Trask again as the quarterback tried to step up in the pocket. He knocked the ball to the ground as well, but with the quarterbacks off-limits from contact, the play was ruled dead on the touch sack.
“It’s exciting. I’m just making plays and trying to make a name for myself,” Clayton said.
Clayton hasn’t delivered much production through his first two seasons, but he’s shown this spring his upside is still significant.
“He’s always had it in him. That man has a motor. He’s going to give it all he has until he has no more. He’s going to keep running to the ball,” linebacker David Reese said.
And all of those defensive line highlights Saturday came without senior CeCe Jefferson, who was injured early in the first half and has reportedly had surgery on his right shoulder, according to the Gainesville Sun’s Robbie Andreu.
It’s expected that Jefferson, who could be in line for a career-best season while sliding into that spotlight stand-up rush end role, will be ready for the start of fall camp, though.
Florida is obviously a better team with Jefferson on the field, but more than anywhere else on the defense, the Gators have depth up front. In addition to Polite, Florida has had redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Moon and redshirt freshman Nick Smith working in that rush end spot, and both are intriguing young players.
Meanwhile, sophomore T.J. Slaton looks like a budding star at defensive tackle, but the Gators have several options there as well.
“I feel like we have all kinds of talent,” fellow defensive tackle Marlon Dunlap said earlier in camp. “We can do something special in this defensive line room. I really want everyone to know that we can [do] something special.”
Spring hype should always be taken in proper context, but in this case, there is indeed a lot to like up front for Florida.
Fans saw a few reasons why on Saturday.