Over the years, Florida has staked their identity on prolific defenses. Although they proudly boast the moniker “DBU,” the defensive line deserves just as much attention and credit for the success of those talented ball hawks that float around in the secondary.
It is, after all, the defensive line that makes sure the opposition’s quarterback is never able to truly get comfortable.
In 2018, Jachai Polite and CeCe Jefferson excelled in Todd Grantham’s aggressive defense. The duo combined for 23.5 tackles for loss and an impressive 12 sacks. When you’re performing at that level, you command extra attention from the offensive line, leaving gaps in the protection for your teammates to exploit.
With the departure of Polite and Jefferson, we should expect to see a drop in production, right? I wouldn’t count on it.
A couple of things happened this off-season that will greatly impact the Gators’ defense in 2019.
First, Todd Grantham decided to decline a multimillion dollar offer to join the Cincinatti Bengals as a defensive coordinator. This means Florida maintains continuity, something that has been a bit of an issue for the Gators over the past decade.
With that continuity, the Gators will show even more growth on the defensive side of the ball, and an increased playbook. Year two in the system means greater understanding and therefore, the ability to open up to some of the more nuanced plays that may not have been available to Grantham in year one.
The second major occurrence this off-season was the transfer of Jonathan Greenard. Greenard played for Grantham during his time at Louisville and is not only familiar with the scheme, he was built for it.
Grantham was Greenard’s primary recruiter at Louisville and the two have a great relationship. With his transfer, Greenard adds immediate depth, experience, and production to the spot left by Jefferson. A position that might have seen a significant decline in production could now at least be as good as it was in 2018.
Before the acquisition of Greenard, Jeremiah Moon appeared to be the starter at the buck position. Moon is talented but I doubt his readiness to be an every-down player.
At the same position, redshirt freshman Andrew Chatfield has shown excellent playmaking ability in his young career, and could challenge for meaningful snaps throughout fall practice and into the season ahead.
At the three-technique, the Gators are loaded with experience, boasting a trio of seniors.
One of my favorite players to watch at this position is Adam Shuler. He made several big plays during the 2018 season and just has a really high motor. He recorded 39 tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery last fall. While his name may not be called as often as the guys on the edge, be assured that Shuler is creating problems for the offensive line.
Behind Shuler, is Marlon Dunlap and Luke Ancrum. Dunlap, a transfer from North Carolina, played in seven games last season and recorded six tackles, including one for a loss. Don’t expect a huge bump in his production this season but he is capable in providing experienced depth.
Ancrum has played in fourteen games during his Florida career and posted his best numbers last season. During the 2018 campaign, he recorded eight tackles and an interception.
Although, neither Dunlap or Ancrum are posting elite numbers, they are both supporting Shuler very well in their backup capacity.
Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe will split reps–although, not equally–at the nose tackle position.
As a sophomore, Campbell played in ten games and totaled 37 tackles and a fumble recovery. Campbell is the perceived starter at this point but if this defensive unit is to take a big step forward in 2019, his backups will have to make a serious impact.
Tedarrell Slaton has the size and the speed to excel in this defense but was mostly underwhelming last season. In nine games, Slaton managed just 21 tackles. I am looking for him to take the next step in realizing his true potential during the upcoming season.
Conliffe is another player that has all of the natural tools but needs to figure out how to use them with relentless effort on every rep. He only appeared in six games last season and unless he really shines during fall practices, I don’t expect to see that really changing this year.
The strong-side defensive end position belongs to Jabari Zuniga. Recently named a preseason first-team All SEC defender, Zuniga was a disruptive force last season. He totalled 45 tackles–eleven of them for a loss–and 6.5 sacks in 2018. With an even larger role in this year’s defense, expect Zuniga to continue keeping offensive coordinators up late at night.
The combination of Zuniga and Greenard rushing from the edges should have any quarterback that faces them, more than a little concerned.
Behind the talented fifth year senior, is Zach Carter. Carter has shown promise in practices and will look to continue his development throughout the 2019 season.
For the moment, it really is Jabari Zuniga and everybody else at this position, something that defensive line coach David Turner hopes to change this year.
Florida still has some pieces to figure out behind their starters, but those leading the defensive line are some of the best in the nation and will wreak havoc on the opposition this fall. Overall, I expect a very good season from the Gators defensive front.
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