College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.
If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.
For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.
The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:
Who’s gone: Junior defensive end/outside linebacker Jachai Polite, who has declared for the NFL draft, senior defensive end/outside linebacker Cece Jefferson and senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark.
Polite had a breakout season in 2018, leading the Gators in sacks (8.5) and tackles for losses (13.5). Many are projecting he’ll be a first-round draft pick this spring.
Jefferson, who played the same position as Polite this past season, started 25 games and ends his UF career with 9.5 sacks.
Clark, who started all 11 games in 2017, did not start any this past season and his playing time fell way off.
Who’s back: Tackles Adam Shuler, Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, Elijah Conliffe, Marlon Dunlap and Luke Ancrum; ends Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton, Zachary Carter and Malik Langham; end/outside linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield.
With Polite and Jefferson gone, the new leaders up front figure to be Shuler, Campbell, Zuniga and Moon. All four are coming off productive seasons in 2018.
Shuler, a former defensive end at West Virginia, was moved inside to tackle during preseason camp last August and it turned out to be one of the best moves the coaching staff made. Shuler took over as a starter in the third game and became perhaps the Gators’ best defensive tackle over the course of the season.
Zuniga, who announced this past weekend he is returning for his senior season, may have been overlooked at times this past season due to the presence of Polite, but he had a big year as well, recording 10 tackles for losses, 5.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. Zuniga has a chance to become the Gators’ new star coming off the edge.
Moon, who has the frame and athleticism to play the hybrid Polite/Jefferson position, has a chance to become a starter.
Campbell is a powerful and aggressive inside presence who quietly had a strong sophomore season in 2018.
Who’s new: Langham and Chatfield are two highly rated freshmen who redshirted last season and now are ready to compete for significant playing time.
Langham, a four-star recruit out of Alabama, was signed as a defensive end, but he’s steadily gotten bigger and stronger since he’s been at UF and appears to be growing into a defensive tackle. He’ll likely get a look at end and tackle in the spring and a decision eventually will be made concerning his full-time position.
Chatfield signed as a linebacker, but now figures to get a serious look at the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.
The front also will get some help from the incoming freshman class.
The Gators likely will sign only one tackle in this recruiting cycle, but they’re certainly happy with the one they signed. Jaelin Humphries was a priority and now will have a chance to compete for playing time in August.
Mohamound Diabate and Lloyd Summerall were signed as linebackers, but both figure to get a look at the outside linebacker/defensive end spot. Diabate is an early enrollee, so he’ll start competing in the spring.
What’s next: The Gators have lost only three players from last season’s defensive front, but a lot of production walked out with Polite and Jefferson.
The No. 1 priority in the spring will be finding playmakers at that hybrid position. Moon, given his experience, appears to be the heir apparent. But he’ll get plenty of competition from Clayton, the former elite recruit who redshirted last season and also could end up seeing playing time at the traditional defensive end spot.
Other than the hybrid position, the Gators appear set at the other three positions in terms of experience, depth and talent. UF is three-deep at both defensive tackle spots and defensive end.
It’s now a question of continuing to develop talent — guys like Slaton and Conliffe at tackle and Carter, Clayton, Langham and Chatfield at end.
Possible scenario: The Gators appear to have talent and depth at all four positions across the front, so the D-line likely will be considered a team strength coming out of the spring. If Moon and Clayton turn out to be playmakers at Polite’s old position and Zuniga takes his game to another level in his senior season, the Gators have a chance to possibly match the production of Polite and Jefferson.