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:
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.
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.
“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
Ranking the SEC defensive lines