GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Most would need a roster and extensive depth chart to thoroughly recall all of the players who contributed along Florida’s defensive line this season.
That was largely due to injuries, but defensive line coach Chris Rumph also made a point of rotating players to keep the group fresh — or as fresh as could be given the first point.
All told, the Gators have the duality of likely losing three of their best linemen while still returning a decent amount of experience up front.
That doesn’t mean that lost production is easily replaced, though.
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley was projected as a late first-round NFL Draft pick in ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s mock draft this week.
Assuming Brantley leaves, along with senior nose tackle Joey Ivie and senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., the Gators would be replacing three of the four linemen who started the season’s first four games.
From a production level, Brantley and Ivie in particular would leave significant voids.
According to the unique data Pro Football Focus compiles by tracking every player’s production on every snap, Brantley led the Gators with 28 total “quarterback pressures” while Ivie amassed 22. The two combined for just 6 missed tackles, according to that data while PFF has given Brantley a season grade of 86.4 (on a 1-100 scale) so far and Ivie an 80.1.
As for the traditional stats, Brantley tallied 28 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble this fall. Ivie, who missed several games with a thumb injury, totaled 21 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
As with the rest of the defense, the line was mostly effective this fall, though the numbers took a hit as the injuries piled up and there were certainly some less-than-dominant performances during the second half of the season.
All told, Florida has racked up 2.5 sacks per game (tied for 29th nationally) and ranks a respectable 36th nationally in rush defense (142.3 yards per game) overall.
But five of the last seven opponents rushed for 219 yards or more as Ivie, Cox and defensive end Jordan Sherit all missed games while Brantley and CeCe Jefferson played through injuries down the stretch.
Mixed in to that stretch were stifling performances against Georgia (21 rushing yards allowed) and South Carolina (43), and the epic goal-line stand to preserve a 16-10 win at LSU stands as a statement performance from the unit.
Star of the group
Alabama coach Nick Saban said leading into the SEC Championship Game that he felt Brantley was as good a player at his position as there is in college football.
High praise from a guy who is as good a coach as there is in college football.
The traditional stats bely the dominant force Brantley was for most of the season, creating consistent pressure even if it didn’t necessarily end in a sack or tackle for him.
He hasn’t announced any decision regarding the NFL Draft, but it would be a surprise to see him back next fall.
Looking at 2017
So where will the Gators be if Brantley leaves, joining Ivie and Cox on the way out of Gainesville?
Redshirt sophomore Taven Bryan quietly had a solid season and has thus far received a grade of 77.7 from PFF. He likely would slide into Brantley’s spot with Khairi Clark (49.4 grade) taking over at the nose for Ivie. Jachai Polite also be an option after receiving significant experience as a true freshman.
That interior rotation all depends on what the Gators choose to do with Jefferson (75.4), who played both inside and outside this season. He’s a plus playmaker seemingly a better fit at defensive end, but a nice asset wherever he plays … or wherever he’s most needed.
The Gators have plenty of depth at defensive end returning as Jordan Sherit (74.7, 3.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss) will be back as a redshirt senior and promising young players Jabari Zuniga (74.9, 5 sacks, 8.5 TFL) and Antonneous Clayton (a 5-star recruit who played a limited role in his first season) will continue to develop as sophomores.
Sophomore Keivonnis Davis (58.7) also received significant playing time (and 4 starts) at end and will again be in the mix.
Luke Ancrum, little used as a redshirt freshman, is further depth on the interior, while 4-star defensive end commit Zachary Carter can play either inside or outside. Defensive tackle commit Kyree Campbell, rated a 3-star recruit by 247Sports, is also joining the roster.
So to answer the question …
Ideally, Bryan builds on his encouraging 2016 performance, Zuniga and Clayton make a sophomore surge to pair with Sherit in the defensive end rotation and Jefferson brings some star power to the group wherever he plays.
The Gators will have plenty to prove up front in 2017, but they do at least have some options and a good starting point.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of our position-by-position review with a link to the earlier installments.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 19: Offensive line
Dec. 20: Running backs
Dec. 21: Tight ends
Dec. 22: Wide receivers
Dec. 23: Quarterbacks