GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida has been known for its defense over the past few years, and that’s unlikely to change in 2016.
Despite losing a starter at every position, the Gators are still stacked with talent and depth on the defensive side of the ball.
UF will once again feature some elite players along the defensive line and in the secondary, and the linebacker position is in much better shape from an injury standpoint.
Here’s where Florida stands on defense heading into spring:
Returners: Caleb Brantley, Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark, Thomas Holley, Andrew Ivie, Joey Ivie, Jabari Zuniga
The skinny: The process of replacing Jonathan Bullard begins this spring. The projected first-round pick was a disruptive force for Florida and a leader on defense. Brantley appears poised to have a breakout year in 2016. The redshirt junior consistently made plays last season and is in the best shape of his career. Ivie is also ready to step up as a senior. Bryan and Clark are both expected to contribute more, as is a now-healthy Holley. But also keep an eye on Zuniga. If he has added enough weight to play inside, the redshirt freshman could work his way into the rotation. The Gators won’t have any incoming defensive tackles this summer, so it will be important for the current players to establish themselves this spring.
Returners: Luke Ancrum, Bryan Cox Jr., Keivonnis Davis, CeCe Jefferson, Justus Reed, Jordan Sherit
Newcomers: Jordan Smith
The skinny: The Gators no longer have Alex McCalister, but they were without him for five games last year. As a result, Jefferson received a significant number of snaps and had a productive freshman season, recording 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Davis also burned his redshirt late and played well in some big games. Cox is the top returning tackler on the defensive line and will set the standard for a relatively young unit. Sherit and Reed, who both saw increased roles in 2015, need to elevate their games this spring. Entering the mix at end will be redshirt freshman Ancrum and early enrollee Smith, who has a frame and skill set that resembles McCalister. However, Smith has better size (225 pounds) coming out of high school.
Returners: Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, Rayshad Jackson, Daniel McMillian, Matt Rolin
Newcomers: David Reese
The skinny: This could finally be the year that Florida’s heralded 2013 linebacker class reaches its potential. The lowest ranked signee of the group, Davis, has been the most productive player for the Gators thus far. Injuries have hindered the careers of Anzalone and Rolin, but both are now 100 percent and certainly look the part physically. McMillian played in all 14 games last season and seems to finally have a grasp of the playbook, which he used to struggle with. If all four can make it through 15 practices healthy, UF’s linebacker position will be in great shape for the fall. Redshirt freshman Jackson and early enrollee Reese need to come into their own this spring so they can provide depth at the position.
Returners: Duke Dawson, Jalen Tabor, Chris Williamson, Quincy Wilson
Newcomers: McArthur Burnett, Chauncey Gardner
The skinny: Florida has lost starting nickelback Brian Poole as well as one of the best cornerbacks in school history in Vernon Hargreaves III, but the Gators will survive in the secondary. Tabor and Wilson performed better than Hargreaves statistically last season, so don’t expect much of a drop-off with them opposite each other. Williamson is former four-star recruit who has an opportunity to make his mark this spring. Dawson is set to take over for Poole at nickelback, and early enrollee Gardner will compete for playing time at both nickel and corner. Burnett’s biggest priority this spring needs to be putting on weight. He reported to UF in January at 157 pounds and has to get bigger if he’s going to see the field as a freshman.
Returners: Marcell Harris, Kylan Johnson, Marcus Maye, Nick Washington
The skinny: Florida’s two signees at the position don’t arrive in Gainesville until the summer, so the Gators will likely decide on their replacement for Keanu Neal during spring practice. Harris has the physicality and tackling ability to thrive at the strong safety spot, but Washington has been more consistent with his reps. They’ll go head-to-head for the starting job while Johnson gets his feet wet as a redshirt freshman. Maye’s decision to return for his senior season was huge for Florida. Without him, it could have been a scary situation at safety. He’ll be the leader on the backend and direct a group a defensive backs that’s going to feature a few new faces in the starting lineup.