GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There is no good time to lose two starting defensive linemen to injury and have yet two others facing uncertain statuses as well.
But could there be a worse time than this?
No. 18 Florida prepares to host an LSU team known for its physical play up front. The Tigers showcased that ability with 418 rushing yards against Missouri — all without star running back Leonard Fournette.
That’s the heightened challenge facing the Gators this week as defensive end Jordan Sherit will join nose tackle Joey Ivie on the sideline, while fellow veteran defensive tackle Caleb Brantley and end Bryan Cox Jr. are questionable to some degree as well.
That’s the entire starting defensive line the Gators trotted out the first four weeks — out, limited or ailing at best.
“I mean, it’s big. Jordan Sherit is a big-time player for us and losing him definitely hurts, but we have a lot of young guys that can help out and step up,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “That’s why you come to Florida is to play as a freshman. You don’t come here to redshirt and do whatever. I’m excited to see a lot of the young guys play and step up. Just next man up — that’s our mentality going into this week.”
The first domino fell last week when Ivie, a steady senior in the middle, was lost to a thumb injury that is expected to sideline him 4-5 weeks.
Then came Sherit, who was a game-time decision Saturday at Vanderbilt and ultimately decided he couldn’t play. The veteran end, who has 3 sacks and 20 tackles this fall, will have his knee scoped, coach Jim McElwain said.
Brantley, meanwhile, was wearing a cast or wrap of some sort on his hand after the game Saturday while saying he would be fine. But on Monday, McElwain said he is “sick, hurt his finger” while adding, “I don’t know whether he’ll play.”
And then there’s Cox, a three-year starter who came off the bench for the first time in a limited role last week and sounds like he’s trying to gut through an unspecified leg injury.
“It means so much to this guy, it would be hard for me to say that he would be out. He’s not going to play as much as he has, but he’ll continue to give us everything he has,” McElwain said.
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) had sophomores CeCe Jefferson and Keivonnis Davis make their first starts of the season at defensive end while redshirt-sophomore Khairi Clark stepped in at nose tackle.
The Commodores rushed for 147 yards, with most of those coming in the first three quarters, but they managed only 2 field goals despite moving the ball well on the ground at times.
Jefferson, who had been working at tackle, drew praise for his play while showing his versatility in playing both inside and on the end. He made three of his four starts last year at defensive end, so it wasn’t a new task for him.
“Man, this guy just brought some energy to the game. You want to talk about a guy that doesn’t play with any pressure, he just goes and plays,” McElwain said. “… He just goes and enjoys playing and he really affected the game in a positive way.”
Meanwhile, redshirt-sophomore Taven Bryan and true freshman Jachai Polite came in at defensive tackle, redshirt-freshman Jabari Zuniga continued to play a role at defensive end while notching his team-best fifth sack and highly-touted true freshman Antonneous Clayton saw his first collegiate action at end.
“I thought Jachai did a pretty good job, Antonneous got in there and flew around a little bit, caused some havoc and that was good to see, and you know, more reps for some other guys as well,” McElwain said of his assessment. “I thought Keivonnis played very consistent, nothing splashy, but pretty consistent. We need to get a little more suddenness out of that, but overall a bunch of them played and they’re going to have to as we go down the stretch here.”
Building experience is great, but ideally it doesn’t come out of necessity in an expanded role against one of the top rushing attacks in the country.
LSU (3-2, 2-1) had two different players rush for at least 130 yards Saturday in that 42-7 win over Missouri, neither of which was named Leonard Fournette. He was out with an ankle injury last week but is expected to play against Florida, according to an ESPN report.
Derrius Guice rumbled for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns on 17 carries while Darrel Williams tallied 130 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 carries, contributing to the team’s 418 overall rushing yards and 634 total offensive yards — a program record for an SEC game.
“These guys are spreading it out a little bit more, trying to throw and do that kind stuff, which is fine. But still, at the end of the day, you have to stop the run to be successful,” McElwain said. “They’ve got a rested Fournette, who is as good as there is and obviously he’s going to be hungry because he saw what the other guy did, right? There will be a little competition there, I think.”
Guice is up to 402 yards and 4 touchdowns in 46 carries while Fournette has 386 yards and 2 touchdowns on 67 attempts, but a healthy Fournette carries as much clout and respect as any running back in the country.
The day after looks even brighter for LSU and Ed Orgeron, who told me this morning he expects Leonard Fournette to return against Florida.
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) October 2, 2016
“His play speaks for itself. He’s one of the best, or arguably the best running back in college football,” Anzalone said. “It’s a big challenge for the defense, and the biggest thing is just making gang tackles, everybody running to the ball. I mean, that’s something we do every week playing in the SEC, but especially going against Leonard Fournette.”
Anzalone said these are the kind of games a linebacker such as himself looks forward to on the schedule.
That may not be the same feeling for the Gators’ coaching staff as it tries to figure out how to best adjust to the injury setbacks and match up against the team’s toughest challenge yet.
LSU’s breakout offensive performance came in its first game since firing coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replacing them with interim coach Ed Orgeron and new offensive play-caller Steve Ensminger.
“The guy calling the plays (is) highly respected in our profession. Knows how to use personnel and create different formations, and that showed up,” McElwain said. “… They put up a ton of points and a ton of yards in an SEC game, so we’ve got a great challenge on defense.”
To put it lightly.