Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of the “Next Up” series, which profiles the signees from Florida’s 2016 class. SEC Country traveled around the South to visit the recruits before they reported to campus.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jachai Polite and Marcus Tatum first crossed paths as opponents in a junior varsity game.
The next time they see each other will be as rivals in the SEC.
Polite and Tatum enrolled this month at Florida and Tennessee, respectively. Tatum is an offensive tackle, and Polite will play defensive end for the Gators.
They went head-to-head as high school freshmen in 2012. Following that season, Polite transferred to Tatum’s high school (Mainland) in Daytona Beach.
“I dominated everybody in practice my first year,” Tatum said. “All of a sudden, this kid shows up just as big as me and just as fast and strong. I was like, ‘OK, I got some competition now.’ Ever since then it’s been on.”
Mainland has Division I talent on a yearly basis, and coaches create a competitive environment in practice. Polite and Tatum quickly formed a relationship off the field, but that was put aside once the pads came on.
“We went at it,” Polite said. “The coaches always made me go against him every practice — 1-on-1, inside drills and the scrimmage. But after practice, we’re best friends. We’ve been very close since I got here.
“But we didn’t soften up or take it easy because of that. We went hard every play, and it paid off for us in the end. He’s the reason I got better these last three years.”
Tatum called Polite a “silent killer” because he’s a dominant player who doesn’t talk much. He told SEC Country that Polite is “way better” than former No. 1 overall recruit and Auburn defensive end Byron Cowart, whom Tatum faced as a sophomore.
“I never faced anybody better than him,” Tatum said of Polite, whose best move is the bull rush. “If we went 10 times, we would split five reps. Sometimes it would be 6-4. Neither of us would ever just whoop the other one.
“We had so much pride that we never ended up on our back. We just wouldn’t let it happen. We tried to prepare ourselves for the next level, and if we went against each other we knew nobody could stop us in a game.”
Polite’s uncle, Fred Nolan, is Mainland’s offensive line coach and has worked with Tatum since the sixth grade. He’s had a front-row seat to their bouts.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Nolan said. “Two SEC linemen competing in practice, we saw some epic battles. A lot of people pay for that. We got to watch it for free.”
Polite and Tatum both had offers from Florida and Tennessee, as well as Auburn, Miami and others. They came close to attending UF together.
“Of course I wanted him to come with me because we’ve been teammates,” Polite said. “We talked about it, but he had to do what’s best for him. At the end of the day, we’re both getting a free education and playing in the SEC.”
Nolan can’t wait to watch Polite and Tatum compete in the rivalry, and said his rooting interests will be neutralized. He’s even on the lookout for some appropriate game-day attire.
“I need to buy one of those jerseys with Florida and Tennessee split down the middle,” Nolan said. “Every coach wants to see his boys play at the highest level. That’s something you only dream of. Both of them are my babies.
“So it’s a great feeling, especially when you’ve put in so much time, work and effort. It makes me happy and proud to see the fruition of it. They get to go play in the SEC. That’s like the NFL D-League.”
High school teammates are now rivals, but for a brief second, their friendship will take precedence when they first line up against each other in college.
“As soon as we make eye contact,” Tatum said, “I’m going to laugh.”
Polite won’t be able to contain himself either.
“I’m going to smile, I already know it,” Polite said. “I can’t hold back a smile when I look at him. That’s my boy.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi
THE NEXT UP SERIES
- Rick Wells relishes role as Jim McElwain’s first commitment
- Murder brought Tyrie Cleveland to Texas, new lease on life returns him to Florida
- Jawaan Taylor underwent major transformation to land offer from Florida
- Brett Heggie grew up a Seminole, but the FSU legacy is Florida bound
- Florida’s Lamical Perine validated by senior season after lack of offers, respect
- Antonneous Clayton used to be an outcast because of another game he played