Florida’s big freshman defensive tackles turning heads early
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jachai Polite took one look at TJ Slaton and couldn’t believe his eyes.
Standing in front of Polite was a freshman defensive lineman who was 2 inches taller and almost 100 pounds heavier than him.
“Biggest human being I’ve ever seen,” Polite said. “He’s humongous. I don’t think he knows it yet either, how big he is. But he’s on the right track.”
Slaton’s potential is big, too.
A lack of depth on the interior of Florida’s defensive line will give Slaton — along with fellow freshmen Elijah Conliffe and Kyrie Campbell — every opportunity to play early in their college careers.
His sheer size is enough to warrant playing time. Slaton, a 4-star recruit and the Gators’ highest ranked signee in the Class of 2017 (No. 69 overall in the 247Sports composite), stands at 6-foot-4 and 358 pounds. He has the size and brute strength to handle double teams and free up space at the line of scrimmage for other defenders.
And as a former offensive lineman, he has knowledge of how his opponents on the other side of the line operate.
Slaton is also apparently quick on his feet.
Defensive end Antonneous Clayton said that during team drills at a recent practice, the quarterback took the snap and rolled down the field. Slaton followed him in hot pursuit from one end of the field to the other to make the play.
“We just replayed it like 10 times,” Clayton said. “Like, if you can do this every single play, you’re going to be all right.”
Slaton’s fellow freshman defensive tackles aren’t on the small side, either.
Conliffe, another 4-star signee, is 6-foot-4 and 317 pounds. Campbell, a 3-star signee who enrolled in the spring, is 6-3 and 305 pounds.
“A wise man told me there’s a reason lightweights don’t fight heavyweights,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
And these heavyweight players have the potential to make a name for themselves early. Florida returns just two players with experience at defensive tackle in Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark. CeCe Jefferson, a natural defensive end, could also play inside if needed.
That means as long as the freshmen can learn the playbook, playing time will be imminent.
“They’re beasts,” Polite said. “They’re just coming along. Just the transition to the game speed is different. That’s what they’re realizing. So they know they’ve got to do it right now.”
Of the three, Campbell is further along in terms of playbook knowledge, an advantage that came with enrolling early. He took reps with the first team last week when Clark was out with an illness.
“All of a sudden, Kyree, he was like a new guy. So then, as Khairi came back, Khairi starts with the 2’s,” McElwain said. “And so, that’s how you build that competition piece.”
Clayton said Slaton and Conliffe have been leaning on Campbell to help them adjust to Florida’s scheme. He was in their spot just seven months ago and is also trying to work his way into a role on the team.
And he’s already learned how much it benefits to rely on the coaches as much as his natural strengths.
“A lot of guys get here and they have this habit of always going back to their high school skill set, not always trusting the coaches on what they want to teach them,” Clayton said. “Kyree Campbell kind of helped that out a little bit. … They’re kind of trusting him a little bit more. And they’re showing flashes in practice of actually trusting in them.”