UF defensive line breakdown: End position loaded, tackles need to rise above

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Florida senior defensive lineman Cece Jefferson (96) runs a drill during practice Saturday. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

This is the fifth in a series breaking down the 2018 Florida football team.

A preview of the Florida defensive line entering head coach Dan Mullen’s first season:

The upside

Cece Jefferson’s decision to return for his senior season was big for the Gators and could turn out to be even bigger for him. Playing in a scheme and at a position (combination end/outside linebacker) that seem perfectly tailored to his skill set, there’s a good chance Jefferson is going to make a whole bunch of plays this fall and improve his draft status for next spring.

Jefferson is a leader on the defense and has become the face of the program with his outgoing personality and the positive approach he’s taken to the new coaching staff.

One thing is certain, Jefferson is going to be fresh for every snap he’s on the field because the two guys behind him — Jachai Polite and Jeremiah Moon — are also proven playmakers who are going to get their share of snaps. The competition at the position figures to be intense.

At the other end spot, the Gators have experience and depth.

Jabari Zuniga is coming off a strong sophomore season in which he had eight sacks, four tackles for losses and six quarterback hurries. Now the clear starter with Polite playing on the other side, Zuniga has a chance to emerge as an elite SEC defensive end.

Like Jefferson, Zuniga also will always be fresh on the field because of the presence of Antonneous Clayton, Zachary Carter, West Virginia transfer Adam Shuler and highly rated true freshman Malik Langham.

Clayton flashed playmaking ability in the second half of last season, then in the spring started to gain the consistency that had been lacking in his game.

Carter, a four-star prospect who redshirted last season, now appears ready to make an impact in his redshirt freshman season.

Inside, at the two tackle spots, the Gators should be strong with the return of senior Khairi Clark and sophomores Tedarrell Slaton and Elijah Conliffe, who were impressive playing as true freshmen last season.

Junior Luke Ancrum was only a two-star recruit, but he’s played in 18 games over the past two seasons and has shown he can hold his own.

The downside

Jefferson underwent shoulder surgery in the spring, and although he’s been cleared for preseason camp, he’ll likely be limited to non-contact work, at least early. The goal is to make sure Jefferson is good to go for the Sept. 1 opener.

Another concern is the lack of experienced depth at the two tackle spots.

Behind the top four are North Carolina transfer Marlon Dunlap and sophomore Kyree Campbell.

Campbell played in nine games as a true freshman last season, but missed the spring recovering from a knee injury. Dunlap played in only seven games, recording just four tackles, in his one year at UNC.

Young guy to watch

True freshman defensive end Malik Langham will start camp at the bottom of a deep depth chart at end, but the four-star prospect, and one of the highest-rated players in the recruiting class, will have a chance to move up quickly if he picks up the defense early.

This is an Alabama kid who the Tide wanted badly on National Signing Day, but he elected to make the move to Florida.

He was a dominant player at Huntsville Lee High School, where he recorded 104 tackles and 11 sacks in his senior season.

Don’t be surprised if …

True sophomore Tedarrell Slaton begins his emergence as the Gators’ next elite defensive tackle.

He made some impressive plays as a true freshman last season and followed it up with a strong spring that saw him dominate at times.

Many of the players have benefited significantly from their work with Nick Savage in the offseason strength and conditioning program, and Slaton has to be right at the top of the list.

The word on Slaton last spring was that if he got in shape, he could develop into a big-time player. Well, he’s gotten in shape, losing about 30 pounds this summer.

He’s still a big, formidable guy who has explosive quickness and the ability to be disruptive.

Quotable

“Just wait until September first. I think this defense fits me pretty well. I did 3-4 in high school so I’m familiar with standing up and coming off the edge, dropping here and there, making checks here. So, it’s not out of my comfort zone, definitely something I’m comfortable with. I enjoy it every day. (Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham) is a character. The way he coaches makes it easy to learn. Myself and all the other D-linemen are just embracing him and just having fun learning.” — Cece Jefferson

Probable depth chart

DE/OLB

96-Cece Jefferson

99-Jachai Polite

7-Jeremiah Moon

90-Andrew Chatfield

NT

54-Khairi Clark

56-Tedarrell Slaton

91-Marlon Dunlap

T

93-Elijah Conliffe

98-Luke Ancrum

55-Kyree Campbell

E

92-Jabari Zuniga

17-Zachary Carter

77-Antonneous Clayton

95-Adam Shuler

35-Malik Langham

Ranking the SEC defensive lines

Auburn

Alabama

Florida

Mississippi State

Georgia

LSU

Texas A&M

Missouri

South Carolina

Tennessee

Arkansas

Kentucky

Ole Miss

Vanderbilt

24 COMMENTS

  1. OK, I’m convinced. In the words of the immortal gatorgi, “Let’s just do it!”.

    There are, sports fans, 26 days and a proverbial wake up until kick-off. We are entering the stage of insomnia in another 20 days.

    • 6 haven’t slept well since the first embarrassing laws last year. Get up an GO! I’d say Follow Me but that isn’t the way. Hopefully they have some real leaders to follow.

        • Roger 6. Looks like we not only have depth but quality depth. If second team can develope and be solid across and the 3&4 continue with the freshmen playing and learning we are going to be very good. All it takes is one man to step up and say Follow Me! And be the leader. Tebow was a leader. There were some on defense too.

  2. Okay. In the never too old to learn category, I have a questions for all of you out there. The depth chart lists both a Nose Tackle and a Tackle position. However, in a 3-4, I thought there was only a nose tackle and two ends. What would be the Tackle position in a 3-4?

    • Confusing for sure. We will also be in a 4-3 at times and nickel too. The good thing is it seems we have plenty of parts for the variations.

      • Better yet, draw a generic schematic of both, lay them side by side, and ask yourself the most important question of all: Which one of these things is not the other?

        • The only thing I can say, the way it has been passed down to me, is that if it’s B, then it’s not A. I’m not sure what this means in everyday life or football.

          • Well, that’s certainly not the way I learned it as young gator-6; it was more like “if it’s not B, then there’s no way it can be A”. I tell you Leland, looking back on it all, being schizophrenic is no way to go thru a military career!

    • The 3-4 has a nose tackle and DT because the offense has a strength (TE) to one side or the other.
      The nose tackle lines up angled on the center.
      The strong-side defensive lineman lines up on the offensive tackle, so we label him a DE.
      The weak-side defensive lineman lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard, so we label him a DT. His job isn’t all that different from the strong-side DE, but because he lines up on the guard, he’s not a DE.
      The weakside/pass-rushing DE/OLB (Jefferson) plays outside the offensive tackle, often the QB’s blind side.

  3. Tebow Curse, please change your on line name to something like Winston Curse or Wienke Curse. Tim Tebow does not deserve to have his name associated with your vile trolling. Come to think of it, even those two Noles deserve better that being associated with your drivel.

    • Dan, I’m betting Arnold’s new software deleted him, and your post is just an artifact of his vain try to get back on here. But I agree with you anyway, even if I can’t read what he posted.

      • Gator-6 and 65, I believe that this is the first time I have ever bothered to respond to one of the many trolls who post on this site, and this post was his his same old B.S as you stated 65. I just got annoyed that he uses Tebow’s name in his diatribes. He needs to man up and stop disrespecting a great Gator and wonderful role model. If Arnold’s new software has caught with him then it is a blessing for the rest of us. Thanks guys.

        • No worries Dan. I’m new here and to posting anywhere. I’ve read on other forums and the trolls are annoying beyond words. I like people can disagree and still have good discourse.

  4. Jaws, the odd twist in Grantham’s defensive front is that second tackle who can function somewhat as an end in his 3-4. It’s a way to disguise the alignment so that the offense can’t be sure if the specific assignments up front. We opened practice Friday with Saturday at nose and Slaton at tackle. Remember that Slaton says he’s got his eyes set on beating “13”, Alex Brown’s single season sack record. It’s a versatile defensive scheme that aims to keep opponents guessing from play to play with lots of blitzes, too, a very different look than we’ve deployed in previous years and the kind of aggressive attack that the players enjoy. We’re about to have lots of fun, aren’t we?

    • so is this the zone blitz too, where a defensive lineman drops into coverage at least to break tendencies? some teams do it, the newspaper says Clemson does it. I suppose I should be less nervous about the 3-4, I just really liked the old dan Quinn defense, at least when it was his defense.

  5. Nice! Ranked third in the SEC, first in the East ahead of UGA. I don’t follow the other teams so have no idea how we compare but I trust Robbie to be at least in the ballpark. Games are won in the trenches so this team gives me hope for a good season. If the other team can’t run against this DL and I know we always have great DB’s, the opponents will be hard pressed to score. We should at least be in every game, unless the defense is tired out by the 4th quarter and then gives up chunks of yards because our offense can’t stay on the field long enough to rest the defense.

  6. Been saying this since Grantham became DC and was changing to a 3-4. CeCe Jefferson could easily have a Wilbur Marshall year, and be one of the highest rated defensive NFL draft picks next year.

  7. Slaton is such a key at nose guard for all the other players on the defensive line. If he is as dominant as projected to possibly be on the inside, this Gators DL and entire defense could become exceptional this season. Looking forward to that happening. Go Gators.

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