Loaded defensive line a team strength

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Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga (92) chases down Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm as the referee throws a penalty flag on Georgia for holding during the fourth quarter of the Oct. 27 game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. [Bob Self/GateHouse Florida]

College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.

If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.

For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.

The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:

Defensive line

Who’s gone: Junior defensive end/outside linebacker Jachai Polite, who has declared for the NFL draft, senior defensive end/outside linebacker Cece Jefferson and senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark.

Polite had a breakout season in 2018, leading the Gators in sacks (8.5) and tackles for losses (13.5). Many are projecting he’ll be a first-round draft pick this spring.

Jefferson, who played the same position as Polite this past season, started 25 games and ends his UF career with 9.5 sacks.

Clark, who started all 11 games in 2017, did not start any this past season and his playing time fell way off.

Who’s back: Tackles Adam Shuler, Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, Elijah Conliffe, Marlon Dunlap and Luke Ancrum; ends Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton, Zachary Carter and Malik Langham; end/outside linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield.

With Polite and Jefferson gone, the new leaders up front figure to be Shuler, Campbell, Zuniga and Moon. All four are coming off productive seasons in 2018.

Shuler, a former defensive end at West Virginia, was moved inside to tackle during preseason camp last August and it turned out to be one of the best moves the coaching staff made. Shuler took over as a starter in the third game and became perhaps the Gators’ best defensive tackle over the course of the season.

Zuniga, who announced this past weekend he is returning for his senior season, may have been overlooked at times this past season due to the presence of Polite, but he had a big year as well, recording 10 tackles for losses, 5.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. Zuniga has a chance to become the Gators’ new star coming off the edge.

Moon, who has the frame and athleticism to play the hybrid Polite/Jefferson position, has a chance to become a starter.

Campbell is a powerful and aggressive inside presence who quietly had a strong sophomore season in 2018.

Who’s new: Langham and Chatfield are two highly rated freshmen who redshirted last season and now are ready to compete for significant playing time.

Langham, a four-star recruit out of Alabama, was signed as a defensive end, but he’s steadily gotten bigger and stronger since he’s been at UF and appears to be growing into a defensive tackle. He’ll likely get a look at end and tackle in the spring and a decision eventually will be made concerning his full-time position.

Chatfield signed as a linebacker, but now figures to get a serious look at the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

The front also will get some help from the incoming freshman class.

The Gators likely will sign only one tackle in this recruiting cycle, but they’re certainly happy with the one they signed. Jaelin Humphries was a priority and now will have a chance to compete for playing time in August.

Mohamound Diabate and Lloyd Summerall were signed as linebackers, but both figure to get a look at the outside linebacker/defensive end spot. Diabate is an early enrollee, so he’ll start competing in the spring.

What’s next: The Gators have lost only three players from last season’s defensive front, but a lot of production walked out with Polite and Jefferson.

The No. 1 priority in the spring will be finding playmakers at that hybrid position. Moon, given his experience, appears to be the heir apparent. But he’ll get plenty of competition from Clayton, the former elite recruit who redshirted last season and also could end up seeing playing time at the traditional defensive end spot.

Other than the hybrid position, the Gators appear set at the other three positions in terms of experience, depth and talent. UF is three-deep at both defensive tackle spots and defensive end.

It’s now a question of continuing to develop talent — guys like Slaton and Conliffe at tackle and Carter, Clayton, Langham and Chatfield at end.

Possible scenario: The Gators appear to have talent and depth at all four positions across the front, so the D-line likely will be considered a team strength coming out of the spring. If Moon and Clayton turn out to be playmakers at Polite’s old position and Zuniga takes his game to another level in his senior season, the Gators have a chance to possibly match the production of Polite and Jefferson.

19 COMMENTS

  1. Wow Clemson showed last night what a QB and a good defensive line can do…I’m not quite as convinced about this group but they do have an elite position coach so maybe I’m too pessimistic. I still wonder if slaton might need to move to offensive line.

    • That’s the head scratcher of all head scratchers. Why the hell is Slaton, who was the #3 rated guard in the nation, still playing DT? Up to this point he’s proven he’s not quick and athletic enough to play on the defensive side of the ball. Go back to the position you excelled at in HS and become a future first round pick. I really don’t understand why the coaches are continuing to let it happen. They should step in and say alright we gave you a chance to play the position you wanted to play and it isn’t working out, so lets get you back where you belong.

      • Question what do people think about Ethan White moving to nose tackle ?

        At 6′ 5″ 340 lbs he would be a load. Joe, i respect your comments about the need for him to be quick & athletic enough to move to DL. But he has yet to experience the life changing input of Nick Savage’s strength & conditioning program. – LOL,

        I do think about someone with this size & strength locking up the middle of the DL.

        Jeff from Jax
        UF ’73

    • ” this group” did just fine last season and with all except 2 of them coming back they should do much better next season. You can’t discount the advantage of another Savage S&C program and another year in the same system with the same coaches. Our D line will rock.

    • mveal. I think Mullen and Havesty would have moved Slaton to the OG position if they had been able to sign a big time nose guard type recruit this year. They did not, and I do not see one still one the board to sign. So I expect Slaton will remain at the NG position. But if Slaton does, he needs to slim down some and get a lot stronger. He goes null after he is first hit on the line of scrimmage, and he cannot get off blocks at all. Slimmer and stronger will make him quicker, with more power in his upper body. I hope he progresses during the offseason and becomes a monster in the middle with Campbell next year. Conliffe’s performance was also perplexing this season. He was raved about during the spring and summer, but he then totally disappeared during the season. It would be nice if he makes a comeback as well. But the defense, unless there are a lot of key injuries and Wilson returns to previous form, will not be an issue next season. The biggest question and, really only question for the Florida Gators next season, is the offensive line. Who will make up the top 8 players on the OL and will they play on an effective level early on during the season. If they do, watch out for the 2019 Florida Gators.

      • Jerry = Jeremiah , Luna = Moon I’m guessing. I just hope he takes a ” giant step for mankind and Gatorkind ” Since the day he signed I have read and heard these comparisons to “the freak” , here’s to hoping that this is the year that he proves it true.
        I also think that TJ would be wise to consider switching back over to his natural position, especially with the opportunities available there this off season. Is it as glamorous as sacking the QB? No its not, however the league loves good guard play and pay well for it. Look no further than Jacksonville paying Norvell or Norwell $65.5 million dollars for 5 year contract. Now THAT is glamorous !

  2. I’m thinking Slaton may be moved back considering this article is written just after the season has ended and spring practice hasn’t even began yet. I don’t think the crystal ball is working or it may be taking a vacation. All the info being given is from what we had at season’s end plus who is coming in. Unless I’m mistaken, Slaton was on the defensive side at season’s end, therefore, probably just put in the correct place until more info comes available.

    To me it looks like we will have an elite defense yet again, much better than the defense of last season(2018). Not saying that defense was bad, just this seasons(2019) defense should be much better!

  3. When offensively stopped, top programs in the SEC will gear down and run btw the tackles and take the lead late in the game. To date, most programs haven’t been able to defensively man up and they ultimately throw in the towel. We have to have a strong D-line with depth to stop the big backs when they begin their barrage of banging and battering the defense. Go Gators!

  4. Sad to read and find out that Nick Smith, who missed the entire year, has a permanent neck injury that will force him to give up football. He had a lot of potential that never really got developed much due to his injuries. He was a tremendous but raw athlete. On a positive note, his unfortunate situation reduces the current roster to 84 members, which will allow for the signing of one more recruit of need. LB, which Nick played, is not a strong need. Elam or another defensive lineman would be good. I expect at least one or two transfer announcements at or right after national signing day that will allow for at least two to three more signees in February.

  5. Next years success won’t be determined by the DL or OL or improved QB play like everyone thinks. I feel like I’m the only one who realizes that we are losing the best air guitar playing long snapper in the SEC, if not the country! The focus needs to be developing the next long snapper or we could possibly take two steps…no, make that three steps back next year.

    My big fear is all the reports of Mullen being a sub par recruiter are correct. Our biggest and most glaring hole next year to fill is long snapper and we don’t have a single long snapper in our recruiting class. I may not be the greatest football mind out there but if http://www.learnfootballonline.com has taught me anything, it’s the importance of a good long snapper. Our season next year depends on it!