The upside: The Gators appear strong on the edge, where they have experience and depth at the two end positions. It starts with the starters — junior Cece Jefferson and redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga.
Jefferson appears primed for a breakout season after starting six games last year and recording 6.5 tackles for losses and 1.5 sacks. He’s one of UF’s most experienced defensive linemen, having played in 26 games over the past two seasons.
In an attempt to improve his pass rush, Jefferson has lost 28 pounds since last season and now is a trim, and quicker, 242 pounds heading into the season. Less weight could add up to more sacks, but it also likely will limit how much he can help the Gators inside at tackle. It appears now he will play tackle only in obvious passing situations, where he could use his explosive first step to generate an inside pass rush.
The most proven pass rusher on the team is Zuniga, a redshirt sophomore who led the Gators in sacks last season with 5.0. He steps into a starting role after playing in 13 games in 2016 with three starts.
Zuniga lacked consistency last season, but seems to have corrected that flaw in his game based on his performance in the spring. The coaches said he emerged as a dominant player in the spring and was equally strong against the run and the pass. Like Jefferson, he seems on the brink of breaking out in a big way.
The Gators have quality depth at both end positions — Jordan Sherit at one and Keivonnis Davis at the other. Sherit started seven games last season and recorded 3.5 sacks. He’s UF’s most experienced lineman, having played in 32 games. Davis started five games last season and also was productive coming off the bench in the eight other games.
UF has some promising players behind the backups, including Antonneous Clayton, Jordan Smith and true freshman Zachary Carter.
The downside: The Gators must replace both starting tackles, and matching the production of Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie is not going to be easy. The likely replacements — Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark — are both experienced players who saw action in all 13 games last season.
Clark is a powerful 315 pounds and is hard to budge off the line of scrimmage, but the players behind him basically haven’t played yet, including two true freshmen (Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slayton) and a little-used redshirt sophomore (Luke Ancrum) who was a two-star recruit coming out of high school.
Bryan, the “Wyoming Wild Man”, has great size and a tremendous upside, but has struggled with consistency throughout his career, and that remains a concern even though he showed improvement in the spring.
Bryan is the best option at the one tackle position. Behind him is Jachai Polite, an undersized (260 pounds) former defensive end, true freshman Elijah Conliffe and former offensive lineman Richerd Desir-Jones.
Depth is a big concern at both tackle positions.
Young guy to watch: After making a great early impression in camp a year ago, end Antonneous Clayton, the highest-rated recruit in the 2016 class, all but disappeared. He played in only five games and recorded just three tackles. He was undersized at 220 pounds. But he’s taken care of that deficiency by adding more than 30 pounds of muscle since last fall. He plays with a great motor and showed in the spring he can really get after the quarterback. He’ll see significant playing time behind Jefferson.
UF’S PROBABLE DEPTH CHART
Ranking the SEC defensive lines
6. Texas A&M
7. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State
Don’t be surprised if: Mammoth true freshman Tedarrell Slayton sees early playing time at nose tackle. UF coach Jim McElwain wants the Gators to be bigger on the inside, sort of in the mold of the Alabama defensive tackles, and Slayton certainly fits the description. He is 6-4, 358 pounds and he’s more than just a space eater. He can deliver an explosive blow. He was known more for his offensive line play in high school, but on the occasions he did play defense, he dominated.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.