GAINESVILLE, , Fla. — This year Florida must replace eight 2016 starters at every level of the defense, from the line to the secondary.
The most difficult void to fill will be at defensive tackle, where the Gators lost both starters (Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie) from last season.
Taven Bryan steps in for Brantley at the three-technique, while Khairi Clark takes over for Ivie at nose tackle. UF coach Jim McElwain is confident with Bryan and Clark now in the starting lineup.
“(Bryan) and Khairi Clark have done a really good job inside,” McElwain said. “That’s huge for us. I’d say if you want to write about somebody, write about those two guys.”
Both players are redshirt juniors who have started seven combined games the past two years. Clark registered 16 tackles each season, while Bryan totaled 27 tackles.
“I feel like me and Taven have been ready to take on these roles,” said Clark, who has appeared in all 27 games under McElwain. “We’ve been here for a couple years now and we’ve had to watch guys in front of us take on the job of being the big leaders. It put weight on our shoulders. I feel like this year, we were ready to take it on.”
Clark said Brantley and former Gator Jonathan Bullard showed him what it takes to start and be successful on Florida’s defensive line. Bullard now plays for the Chicago Bears and Brantley is projected to be an early-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“From them, we basically learned that you always had to come out and play your hardest,” Clark said. “If you want to get your name out there, you just have to go out there and be yourself. You can’t think about nothing. Just play your game.”
A former U.S. Army All-American, Clark was the nation’s No. 16-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2014, according to the 247Sports Composite. At 6-foot-2 and 319 pounds, the goal for him this offseason is to make sure he’s in shape for more snaps.
“Khairi is doing good,” defensive line coach Chris Rumph said. “Slimming out, his cardio is better, he’s able to sustain more. Last year, playing and being behind those older guys really helped him.”
Now it’s Clark turn for the spotlight. After a productive month of practice with the first-team defense and a couple years of experience under his belt, he’s looking forward to the 2017 season as a full-time starter.
“I came very far this spring,” Clark said. “I felt like I had to take on that leadership role after all the guys we lost last year. I was really depended on, me and Taven Bryan, to step up and be the big leaders.”