SEC Country is taking an early position-by-position look at Florida’s roster for 2018. So far, we’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive backs and linebackers. Lastly, we look at the defensive line.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Much like with the linebackers, assessing Florida’s situation on the defensive line requires a clearer understanding of the Gators’ new defense that will start to come through spring practice later this month.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is known for running a 3-4 defense, which would represent a significant change for the Gators. But he clarified that his defense is built around 3-4 base principles while alternating between three down linemen and four down linemen.
He also said he runs a 1-gap attack up front, which means the linemen will know their gap responsibilities before the snap while the linebackers pick up the remaining holes. That’s different from many 3-4 fronts that use a 2-gap approach, requiring linemen to read and react on the play as to which gap they fill.
Those are all clues into how the Gators defensive front might look, but again, until the coaches get to work with the players on the field and make their first true evaluations it’s hard to project this unit.
A 3-4 defensive end is different from a 4-3 defensive end. For instance, when Florida has four down linemen, sure, plug in senior standout CeCe Jefferson at end. But when he’s lining up at outside linebacker, it remains to be seen who will comprise the line.
That said, here’s a look at the key players to know.
Khairi Clark (redshirt senior): Clark, listed at 6-foot-2, 319 pounds last season, is the most experienced interior defensive lineman on the roster, starting all 11 games last season at nose tackle. He’s primarily a space eater, which is exactly what a 3-4 nose tackle needs to be. But he’ll have plenty of competition from even larger teammates.
Tedarrell Slaton (sophomore): Slaton was one of the biggest additions in the Gators’ 2017 class — both in terms of recruiting ranking and size. Listed at 6-4, 358 pounds on the official roster last season, he has the look of a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. Former coach Jim McElwain dubbed him and the other massive freshmen defensive tackles the “Bam Bam Kids.” It would not be a surprise to see him claim the starting job.
Elijah Conliffe (sophomore): Another of the aforementioned “Bam Bam Kids,” Conliffe got some experience last season as a raw but physically imposing prospect. He was officially listed at 6-4, 317 pounds. Could he be moved out to defensive end in 3-4 alignments? Sure. That’s why this is largely guesswork
Kyree Campbell (sophomore): Campbell, listed at 6-3, 305 pounds last season, is another guy who could potential slide out to end in a 3-4. He also got some experience as a rookie and is another intriguing young player up front the new staff can mold to best fit the roster.
Marlon Dunlap (redshirt sophomore): Dunlap, listed at 6-3, 328 pounds, sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina. He was a 3-star prospect in the Class of 2016.
CeCe Jefferson (senior): As mentioned, Jefferson will see time at outside linebacker in 3-4 alignments. He led the Gators with 13 1/2 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks last season and could be in for a monster year in Florida’s new defensive scheme.
Jabari Zuniga (redshirt junior): Zuniga has been a major part of Florida’s defensive end rotation the last two seasons, totaling 16 1/2 tackles for loss, 9 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries. There’s reason to think he hasn’t reached his full potential.
Jachai Polite (junior): We highlighted Polite as a player who could potentially get work at outside linebacker, but wherever he lines up he is one of the more intriguing guys on this defense. He started to emerge last season with 5 1/2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 6 quarterback hurries and could be in for greater production in 2018.
Luke Ancrum (redshirt junior): Ancrum has played in 18 games off the bench the last two seasons and will try to make a strong first impression on the new coaching staff.
Zachary Carter (sophomore): Carter redshirted last season, but he was a highly-rated 4-star recruit in the Class of 2016, ranking as the No. 3 strongside defensive end in the class on the 247Sports composite. Listed at 6-4, 270 last year, he could be a real factor for the Gators moving forward.
Antonneous Clayton (junior): There are few players who draw more consistent inquiries from fans. Clayton was one of the prized additions in Florida’s 2016 signing class, but he’s still waiting to break out. He can only benefit from a fresh start with a new coaching staff. There’s still plenty of potential here, and Mullen said he will not be moved to outside linebacker.
Malik Langham (freshman): Langham is a 4-star prospect the Gators pulled out of Alabama, beating the in-state powers for his services. He was ranked the No. 14 strongside defensive end in his class by the 247Sports composite. He’s an intriguing prospect, but he won’t join the team until the summer.
Look for Florida to have interior defensive linemen working at defensive end, and for defensive ends to work at outside linebacker.
Grantham has made it clear he plans to “cross train” a number of players to see who can do what and where all the pieces fit best.
Figuring out the outside linebacker spot seems to be a bigger challenge than sorting out the defensive line. The Gators are well stocked here with young, high-upside linemen, wherever they ultimately line up.
“There’s some defensive linemen here that have some great size, some who have strength, some who have quickness, some who need to lose a little bit of weight. I’m really, really excited about it because the potential I see is there,” defensive line coach Sal Sunseri said.
“What we need to do is get in there and do it right all the time. I’m really, really excited. There’s some people who really caught my eyes, but I’m going to hold that to myself right now until they can show the consistency of doing it every week, every day.”