Tedarrell ‘TJ’ Slaton knows he will play a key role as a true sophomore on Florida’s defense.
The Gators announced Monday that Slaton would start at defensive tackle in Saturday’s season opener against Charleston Southern, taking over the role vacated by Taven Bryan, who is now in his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars after being selected in the first round of April’s NFL draft.
Slaton isn’t entirely new to the collegiate game — he played sparingly in all 11 games as a freshman in 2017, recording 11 tackles — but it’s no secret Slaton is slated for a sizable uptick when it comes to his usage this season.
With just days until Florida hosts the Buccaneers, Slaton said he isn’t feeling nervous or overwhelmed by the expectations that often come with a player’s first start in the Southeastern Conference.
“I feel good about it,” Slaton said. “I feel like I’m real confident in my game and in our scheme.”
The ascension for Slaton isn’t unexpected, however. Many pegged Slaton, who played on both sides of the line as a standout at American Heritage High, as a potential star given his unique blend of physicality and athleticism for his size. Rather than rest on his laurels and wait for the opportunity, Slaton spent the offseason preparing to lay claim to the starting role.
“My preparation has changed tremendously, because it’s not that I’m just playing football — I’m a starter. I have a responsibility, I have a role now. I’ve tried basically like living like a pro and doing things that pros do even though I’m not in the pros,” Slaton said. “Getting up early, getting a routine started, going to treatment and stuff like that every day, twice a day. And just trying to get my body right, eat right and just trying to change my whole motive.”
And Slaton isn’t the only player from the 2017 signing class who is expected to play a pivotal role on Florida’s defensive line.
Elijah Conliffe, who signed with the Gators out of Hampton, Virginia, will start Saturday’s contest at nose tackle, giving UF a defensive line comprised of underclassmen on the inside while upperclassmen anchor the edge. Slaton said once he met Conliffe, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive tackle, last season, he suspected the pair would crack UF’s rotation sooner rather than later.
“Last year, I was typically thinking that we were already going to play like that with each other,” Slaton said of he and Conliffe. “Ever since last year, we would always tell each other like ‘yeah, you know, we’re going to be starting together’.”
Yet the duo would have to get in shape first; Slaton had reached 373 pounds following the end of the 2017 season and lacked the conditioning needed to compete consistently at the SEC level.
Conliffe said the strength and conditioning program designed by Nick Savage tested the pair at first, at least from an endurance standpoint. Slaton said he lost 33 pounds while adding muscle to his massive frame.
“When it first started off, me and TJ were really struggling,” Conliffe said. “But, as the spring went on, we got a lot more conditioned, more technically sound.”
When preseason camp arrived, Slaton and Conliffe were two of the largest men in the room, ready to claim UF’s starting tackle roles.
“(Conliffe) is huge. Him and TJ (Slaton), they’re probably the two biggest guys on the team,” UF junior linebacker David Reese said at the start of camp. “They’re gonna give you all they’ve got, so I’m excited about that. I feel like I can trust them more after seeing them go through the offseason that they had.”