GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Khairi Clark said he wants to make his name “more known” this season for the Florida Gators, which can be hard to do playing a position like nose tackle that rarely draws the spotlight.
And yet, this week it did — at least from head coach Jim McElwain.
After watching veteran linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone deliver big performances in Florida’s 24-7 season-opening win over Massachusetts and after seeing redshirt-freshman defensive end Jabari Zuniga announce his arrival with two sacks, it was somewhat of a surprise when McElwain revealed his pick for the Gators’ defensive player of the week.
“A guy that kind of didn’t show up in the stats but I thought played his tail off and really was our player of the game on defense was Khairi Clark on the inside,” McElwain said Monday.
Clark, a redshirt-sophomore, was credited with just one assisted tackle in the game, but that’s not what the Gators are looking for from that spot.
“What’s he’s really done a great job (of) is understanding about doing your job,” McElwain said. “Sometimes guys up front try to do too much, like they’ll peek back in a gap … and that’ll open up (something else). It’s the gap control up front that forces you to have great defense, not only in the rush lanes but obviously in the run game. You’ve got to be gap sound, and what he does is he holds point, he knows where he’s supposed to be and he’s disciplined about doing it.”
Senior defensive tackle Joey Ivie IV elaborated on the role of the position, which is pivotal — if rarely glamorous — to the success of the defense.
“Me and Khairi play the same position. I play three (technique) and nose and he’s generally just a nose, and it’s tough down there in the trenches,” Ivie said. “You know, he’s taking a lot of double teams so the linebackers will be free. It’s a very selfless position. You’ve got to put it all on the line for your defense, and it’s definitely a position that helps other players make plays.”
The Florida linebackers made plenty of plays Saturday as Davis racked up a team-high nine total tackles and half a sack, and Anzalone tallied six tackles, a sack and a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage.
Clark, who played in all 14 games last season while making one start, is behind Ivie on the depth chart, but with the way the Gators like to rotate defensive linemen throughout the game, he will have ample opportunity to make his mark this season.
Like McElwain, Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph was very pleased with Clark’s season debut.
“He played really, really well. He plays one of those positions that won’t always show up on the stat line, but he does a lot of the grimy stuff,” Rumph said. “He’s down on the front line, you know, he’s taking on two blockers and holding gaps and allowing other people to make plays. He’s bought into that role and he’s doing a good job of it. …
“In order for the defense to continue to grow, he’s going to have to continue what he’s been doing.”
Rumph noted that Clark has lost about 15 pounds while trading body fat for added strength in the process.
McElwain added that Clark has “become much quicker” and is getting engaged with the opposing offensive linemen faster than he did a year ago.
Clark didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the positive public reviews from his coaches meant a lot to him.
“The praise felt really good. I mean, coming from the head coach, you know, someone like me as a nose tackle we don’t really get that much praise, and it always feels good to get that praise from Coach Mac because we probably work the hardest on the defense,” he said.
“… As a nose tackle, like I said, you don’t really hear much about them, but we always do our jobs and I feel we should be noticed more.”
On a Gators defense loaded with star power with the likes of cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and the two linebackers, to name a few, Clark will have to accept a limited share of the limelight.
But what’s most important in that regard is that the coaches are taking notice.