Many watched as 20 seniors were recognized before UF’s 63-10 win Saturday, with offensive lineman Martez Ivey, tight end R.J. Raymond and defensive end CeCe Jefferson drawing the loudest applause from the Florida faithful. All three contributed to the outcome, and Florida made sure to get 37 first- or second-year players in involved, too.
But the drop-off at defensive line in the near future seemingly went unnoticed, obscured by the massive margin of victory.
The truth is the Gators will more than likely need to replace the production of Jefferson, in addition to senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark. And the expectation inside the program is that junior defensive ends Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga will seek NFL evaluations before making decisions regarding their future.
Florida’s inconsistent play along the defensive line with experienced playmakers should be cause for concern, as those behind the key contributors have progressed gradually and haven’t threatened to usurp the starters.
Their time is now, however.
“With a lot of the young guys, they sit there and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m good, I’m good’ until you put them in and call the plays and they’re like, ‘I don’t really know what to do’,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “That comes from them learning how to prepare the right way and put in the mental work.”
That burden of expectation, and the mental preparation, isn’t lost on redshirt freshman defensive end Zachary Carter, who opted to sign with Florida over Clemson in 2017. The Tampa native took the first step Saturday in asserting himself as a potential contributor for the Gators, as Carter recorded three tackles and two pass break-ups in the second half.
“It was a big opportunity,” Carter said. “Those older guys have really pushed us since we’ve been here. I feel like we have to pick up where they left off.”
If anything, the Gators will hope the defensive line continues to improve under experienced line coach Sal Sunseri. The hope was the unit would take some pressure off of UF’s depleted secondary, although the results were undoubtedly mixed this season. With a platoon swap in the cards next season, the wait will soon turn to work for Carter and a defensive line group expected to undergo a seamless transition. Furthermore, it remains to be seen just how much help is on the way. The Gators have just one defensive lineman — defensive tackle Jaelin Humphries — currently committed in the 2019 class, and he’s just recovering from a meniscus injury suffered prior to his senior season.
And the Gators added defensive tackle Adam Shuler as a graduate transfer prior to fall camp, and it’s clear Shuler has been critical part of the line’s improvement in the latter half of the season.
In short, only time will tell if Florida can once again add proven talent before the 2019 campaign. Hence why Carter saw Saturday’s opportunity as vital to the team’s long-term success.
“I just accept it and just keep working. I never let it get me down, because I know my time is going to come, I just encourage everybody and try to work hard and when my time comes, it comes,” Carter said. “It’s bigger than just today.”
The expectation is that Elijah Conliffe and T.J. Slaton will carry a greater responsibility next season as well, although the pair have yielded mixed results in starting roles in 2018. That hasn’t stopped the coaching staff from imploring the underclassmen defensive linemen to prepare, however; their time is coming, ready or not.
“I feel I have a long way to go. Coach (Sunseri) tells young guys like me, Kyree (Campbell), Elijah and T.J. that we’re the future,” Carter said. “So I feel like we have a long way to go.”