Jordan McPherson/SEC Country
Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon walks to the south side of the indoor practice facility as the team breaks from a midfield huddle during the first day of fall camp.

A closer look at Florida’s young but experienced defense

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Randy Shannon knows Florida’s defense is young. But he won’t go as far to say that it’s inexperienced.

As Shannon prepares for his first year as the Gators’ defensive coordinator, he is tasked with replacing eight key players who are now in the NFL, plus redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris, who is out for the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon prior to fall camp.

The big names from last season — Jarrad Davis, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye among a slew of others — are gone.

But Shannon is confident he still has talent.

At Florida’s media day last week, Shannon rattled off 11 guys off the top of his head who have valuable playing experience, even if they weren’t a full-blown starter in the past.

In a nutshell, here’s what Shannon has to work with to reload a perennial top-10 defense:

  • 3 players with at least 10 career starts.
  • 10 players who started at least three games in 2016.
  • 6 players who started fewer than three games but played spot roles for the defense in 2016 or took significant reps during the spring.
  • 19 scholarship freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

“Experience-wise, probably age, like being seniors and fifth-year seniors, we’re very young,” Shannon said. “But like anything else, those guys accepted that we’re not going to have an excuse just because we’re young for our age-wise, but we still play football at the University of Florida. So we’re taking that approach, and those guys are really taking that approach, also.”

The veterans

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Florida’s Nick Washington (8) celebrates with Alex Anzalone after an interception against Vanderbilt. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

The Gators only have four active scholarship seniors or redshirt seniors on defense this year.

Redshirt senior Nick Washington and senior Duke Dawson will provide the veteran presence in the secondary. Washington has played in 38 games during his time at UF with 10 starts. He rotated with Marcell Harris for the second starting safety spot last season before suffering a season-ending injury before the Florida State game. Dawson, who has eight career starts, will be one of Florida’s starting outside cornerbacks after primarily playing nickel in his first three seasons.

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Jordan Sherit has a team-high 11 career defensive starts in his career but is still working his way back from a season-ending knee injury. Junior defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson has started 10 of his 26 career games at Florida and is expected to be a fixture along the defensive line this season.

At linebacker, walk-on redshirt senior Cristian Garcia is the most veteran player in terms of age. He has spent most of his time with the special teams, though and is currently taking reps with the second-team defense.

Experienced underclassmen

The slew of injuries from 2016 might have been a blessing in disguise. In 13 games, the Gators fielded 12 different starting lineups on defense due to suspensions or injuries. Only Quincy Wilson started every game.

By the end of the season, five of Florida’s Day 1 starters were limited to the sidelines with injuries.

So in came the underclassmen to pick up the slack when a starter went down.

Kylan Johnson and David Reese had 10 combined starts at linebacker last year after the injuries to Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Reese, a sophomore, is Florida’s leading returning tackler with 49, including back-to-back double-digit tackle performances against  South Carolina and LSU.

Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, is expected to be a hybrid linebacker/nickel corner this season. Vosean Joseph, a sophomore, earned his first career start in the Outback Bowl and responded with a career-high 6 tackles and a pass breakup.

Jabari Zuniga and Keivonnis Davis earned starts on the defensive line after injuries to Bryan Cox Jr. and Sherit. Zuniga led the Gators with 5 sacks in 2016 despite starting just three games. Davis had 27 tackles in 13 games (five starts) and tallied 5 quarterback hurries. Khairi Clark also started three games last season on the interior of the defensive line.

Chauncey Gardner started the final three games at safety following season-ending injuries to Maye and Washington. He responded 17 total tackles and 3 interceptions in that three-game span and earned Outback Bowl MVP honors after intercepting two fourth-quarter passes, returning the first for a touchdown. Most of the time that he was on the field, Gardner was playing either safety or nickel. However, Florida coach Jim McElwain said he wants Gardner to focus on playing cornerback early on in fall camp.

The up-and-comers

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Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan (93) will get early looks as the Gators’ starting defensive tackle in 2017. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

And then there are the players who have been on the team for a while and haven’t had the opportunity to break out, or have not lived up to their potential.

McElwain specifically pointed to defensive tackle Taven Bryan.

“It’s time,” McElwain said. “This guy has learned from a couple really good players that have moved on. I think he’s got to be a big key for us in there.”

Bryan, a redshirt junior, has 27 total tackles in 25 career games (three starts).

“I’ll take care of business,” Bryan said. “I’ll get it done right.”

In addition to Bryan, sophomore defensive lineman Antonneous Clayton is ready to build on a lackluster freshman year. A 5-star recruit in the Class of 2016, Clayton played in just five games as a true freshman and struggled to adjust to the speed of the game. He turned heads in the spring and is getting spot reps with the starters.

“I’m looking for Antonneous Clayton to be a change-up guy and be ready to go,” Shannon said, “especially when we need to get after the passer a little bit.

Safeties Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton both also have the potential to get playing time this year because of Florida’s lack of depth in the secondary. Taylor, a sophomore, was limited mostly to special teams in his first year. Lenton, a redshirt freshman, sat out last season with a broken foot. Both are still playing catch-up, though, after sitting out the spring.

“Coming out of high school, we had high expectations for them,” Shannon said, “and we continue to have high expectations for them.”

The freshmen

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Florida freshman defensive backs Marco Wilson (3) and CJ Henderson (5) go through drills on the first day of fall camp. (Jordan McPherson/SEC Country)

While Florida has talent returning on defense, Shannon will still have to rely on his freshman class to make an impact.

At least one freshman is expected to start in the secondary, and he has six defensive backs to choose from.

There’s Marco Wilson, Quincy’s little brother, who is being prioritized at outside corner and nickel. There’s CJ Henderson, Florida’s top-rated defensive back commitment of the class. There’s Shawn Davis, who is repping at safety and had a one-handed interception on the first day of camp. Donovan Stiner, Brian Edwards and Brad Stewart round out the group, and each has had his moments so far.

On the defensive line, freshman defensive tackles TJ Slaton and Elijah Conliffe should get their share of game reps if not for their size alone. Slaton is 6-foot-4 and 358 pounds. Conliffe stands at 6-4 and 317 pounds.

Playing the best guys

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Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has a knack for fielding top defenses. (Jordan McPherson/SEC Country)

As Sept. 2 and the start of the 2017 season gets closer, Shannon knows the amount of time to implement his defense is limited.

His philosophy for building a starting defense is simple: Get the best 11 players on the field at any given time.

It seems simple enough. He did it at Miami, where he fielded top-10 defenses in six of his 10 years as either defensive coordinator or head coach. The Hurricanes won the 2001 national title behind Shannon’s top-ranked defense. That group  forced 27 interceptions and 45 total turnovers and allowed an average of just 9.4 points per game.

He helped get that done in his first two years at Florida as the Gators’ linebackers coach. Florida finished fifth nationally in total defense last year (292.8 yards allowed/game) and sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points/game). In 2015, the Gators were eighth in yards allowed and 11th in scoring defense.

“I think the one thing coach Shannon has done since he’s taken over as defensive coordinator is really trying to simplify and let our guys go play,” McElwain said. “They’ll get tested, and you know what, I’ll say go ahead and test them, because I think they’re going to be all right.”

Shannon has also coached 25 players who were drafted in either the first or second round of the NFL draft, 12 of whom came during his second stint at UM. Among the notable names are linebackers Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, and safeties Sean Taylor and Ed Reed.

All of his defenses had a common thread outside of just sheer talent: Playbook mastery and playing fast.

“If guys can play fast without thinking a lot, then you’re going to be very successful,” he said. “That’s the whole thing we’re doing as a defensive staff is trying to find what can we call so the guys will not have to think, that they can just fly around and have fun but play fast.”

As the Gators continue fall camp and prepare for the season opener, Shannon will continue testing his players. He’ll implement different schemes, different coverages and different fronts until he finds out what sticks.

“When that’s all said and done,” Shannon said, “when it gets about maybe that 10-day period out, then we’ve got to say, ‘OK, what can we do as a defense where those guys can fly around? Who are our best 11 guys that can help us get to where we need to be at?’

“That’s when we’ll decide on what we can do.”