GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Those who didn’t catch it live have likely seen on social media by now the incredible hustle play by Florida defensive end Jachai Polite early in the fourth quarter Saturday. It’s been hard to miss on Twitter these last few days.
But just in case any of Polite’s teammates somehow hadn’t noticed, the coaches made certain the rest of the Gators saw it again and again during team meetings early this week.
“Oh, definitely a lot,” linebacker Jeremiah Moon said Tuesday. “We saw it this morning, this afternoon and yesterday.”
That goes for the offensive players, as well.
“[We’ve] definitely seen it. I think they’ve seen it on Twitter first, but when we got in the meeting room, Coach Mac played it,” wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “It kind of opened people’s eyes up.”
Polite, a sophomore listed at 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, was lined up at left defensive end on a first down play for Tennessee in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. He timed the snap perfectly, blowing past the right tackle and into the backfield.
But that’s not where the play would be made. The Vols used a quick screen pass to John Kelly to escape a potential loss of yards, and the speedy running back was off and running, around the edge and down the right sideline while shaking a couple defenders along the way for a 29-yard gain to the Florida 31.
Even more impressive when watching the play again, though, is that Polite, the big defensive end, never leaves the screen either, running full speed from the backfield all the way to the end of the play. As safety Nick Washington struggled to bring Kelly down, Polite had managed to get in front of Kelly and tackled him to the ground with help on the back end from another hustling defensive lineman, Kyree Campbell.
— bleechr (@bleechr) September 18, 2017
Polite was credited with half tackles on two of the next three plays as well — including chasing down scrambling quarterback Quinten Dormady for no gain on third down — and the Vols eventually ended the drive with a missed 44-yard field goal.
“He was actually one of our defensive players of the game. Not because of just that play, but you know, it’s interesting. When you look at that singular play, [Kelly] made some guys miss, made a heck of a play, and when you look at it both [Polite] and Kyree, who were at the line of scrimmage, were the two guys that got to the ball carrier because they never quit,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said of the hustle highlight. “And I think in saying that, you can point to something. I thought our guys really played hard in a lot of instances. But if he’s not there and Kyree’s not there, that guy scores. So it kind of puts a smile on your face.”
As McElwain stated, it’s not just about one play with Polite.
The sophomore from Daytona Beach, Fla., has been a revelation for the Gators, ranking third on the team with 11 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss, a sack and 2 quarterback hurries.
That almost matches his 2016 totals, as he finished his freshman season with 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks as a reserve. So far this fall he has been rotating in as part of Florida’s deep crop of defensive ends, led by starters Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson.
And yet nobody has stood out more than Polite through two games. In fact, Pro Football Focus has him as the third-highest-graded edge defender in the SEC through three weeks, just a tick ahead of Zuniga.
Top graded SEC Edge Defenders through 3 wks:
— Vinnie Ronca (@PFF_Vinnie) September 19, 2017
“Jachai turned into a beast from last year,” linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “I’d say he probably done lost like, I’d say 20 pounds of probably just fat and stuff. Like he just got down and lean, so Jachai [is] way faster than I’ve ever seen him.”
Said Gators offensive lineman Tyler Jordan: “He’s a monster. Young kid, but he’s a hell of a player. You know, you go up against him and he’s, the way he plays is like, I’m trying to think of a way to say it, he’s more mature than a lot of the young guys. He plays like an older player. … I know ya’ll saw the clip on Twitter [of him] chasing down that play. He’s like that all the time in practice.”
Teammate after teammate said the same thing about Polite’s practice habits and his relentless work ethic.
“He never gives up on a play,” offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor said.
That’s why the Florida coaches have emphasized Polite’s hustle play in the fourth quarter Saturday, drawing a connection between the way a guy practices and the way he performs on game day. Making the point that giving up on a play could mean a key missed opportunity.
Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Luke Ancrum, who has been in the program a year longer than Polite, said that message resonated with him even before the coaches made it a focal point in team meetings this week.
Like so many others, Ancrum saw the replay on Twitter first and realized there was something he could learn from his younger teammate.
“Jachai’s really special. I like Jachai. I told him the other day after that video got viral, I was like, ‘Bruh, I got to practice like you,'” Ancrum said. “Because it’s really the way he practices. That’s why he’s like that. What you do in practice, you’re going to do in the game, so if you slack in practice you going to slack in the game. …
“I knew he was going to have a breakout season because just the way he was working throughout the summer and what his mindset was on, talking to him every day, stuff like that. Hanging out with him. I just knew it was his time.”
It certainly looks that way.