Sal Sunseri has sent a message to his defensive linemen that should prove to be highly motivational.
“I know where these kids want to go, and I know I can get you there,” Florida’s new defensive line coach said Tuesday.
The Gators, of course, want to go where all college football players hope to go — the NFL. And Sunseri certainly knows a thing or two about the league, having coached in the NFL for 10 years, seven with the Carolina Panthers (2002-08) as the defensive line coach and three with the Oakland Raiders (2015-17) as linebackers coach.
He knows the environment, the challenges. He knows what it takes. And he’s already started imparting some of his knowledge on the Florida defensive linemen.
“It’s about the performance that you’re putting out there on the field,” Sunseri said. “That’s where I can relate to these kids and understand I’ve been where you want to get to, and I want to tell you the secret to it is really simple.
“You need to work hard, you need to show fast-twitch muscle fibers to show that you can play with the quickness because everytime you move up in the level of football from the SEC to the National Football League, that’s the best offensive linemen that you’re going to play against. The SEC, there’s some pretty good talent here, but when you move up to that next level, they’re all good.”
In the NFL — and at any level — the players who succeed are the ones who dedicate themselves to putting in the work, Sunseri said, and doing the extra things, like spending more time in the weight room and in film study.
“If you’re really a good pro, you have film that you take home and study at night so that you can anticipate what the heck plays you’re going to see,” Sunseri said. “Now, this is what our guys have to do. Coming over here because it’s a required time to be here isn’t enough. You’ve got to take that film back with you, and then what you have to do is you’ve got to go home at night and study it.”
Sunseri has already given the defensive linemen some film to study. He’s put together a highlight tape of the best pass rushers in the NFL doing their thing.
It’s apparently already been beneficial.
“What they’ve noticed is, ‘Hey, if you hit your target and you move your feet, you’ll get to the quarterback.’ And sometimes it might be a coverage sack, so you’ve just gotta keep your effort going,” Sunseri said.
It’s unlikely, of course, that every Florida defensive lineman will make it to the NFL. What Sunseri is trying to stress to the players is that to get the most out of their ability, they need to take a pro’s approach to the game.
“When you’re in the National Football League you’re big, you’re strong, you’re fast and you make plays,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to create here — big, strong, fast people who are productive on the field.”
Sunseri is going to have some experienced talent to work with starting in the spring.
The Gators return many of their top defensive linemen, including Cece Jefferson, Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga, Khairi Clark, Antonneous Clayton and three tackles who saw playing time as true freshmen last season — Kyree Campbell, Elijah Conliffe and Tedarrell Slaton. Another freshman who redshirted last season, Zachary Carter, is expected to be in the mix for playing time at end.
Sunseri said it’s now a matter of getting on the field and finding out who is going to perform at a consistently high level.
“There’s some defensive linemen here that have some great size, some who have strength, some who have quickness, some who need to lose a little bit of weight,” he said. “I’m really, really excited about it because the potential I see is there. What we need to do is get in there and do it right all the time.
“There’s some people who really caught my eye, but I’m going to hold that to myself right now until they can show the consistency of doing it every week, every day. Because that’s what we’re looking for.”
One of those players who has caught Sunseri’s eye is Jefferson, a former five-star prospect who Sunseri recruited when he was the Florida State defensive ends coach in 2014.
Jefferson considered a possible early departure for the NFL, but decided to return for his senior season under Dan Mullen and the new coaching staff.
In coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense, Jefferson is expected to play both end and outside linebacker.
Sunseri said Jefferson has a chance to emerge as an elite player in Grantham’s 3-4 scheme, but he needs to put in the work.
“Cece has got to get better with his hands, using his hands and get the edges and not get in a fist fight with the bigger guys and get around them, and use his quickness,” Sunseri said. “I think he can have tremendous success.
“The multiplicity in Coach Grantham’s system is only going to benefit Cece. It’s only going to benefit him being in this program. It’s only going to benefit him being part of this defense that we’re going to start running.”