Summer position previews: defensive line

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Cece Jefferson returns to head what should be a ferocious front for the Gators. But he isn’t alone.

Previously previewing:

Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Offensive line

Our position breakdown series continues today with a look at the other side of the trenches: the defensive line. Note: Todd Grantham loves to change his defensive alignment frequently, sometimes on each play, so it doesn’t seem fair to project a starting defensive line lineup. This also means that the “leader” and “backup” designations are solely used to keep uniformity throughout these projections, as opposed to truly believing that these players will be benchwarmers. 

The leader (outside): Cece Jefferson

Jefferson has come a long way since his father refused to sign his letter of intent to Florida. He’s grown into a fearsome pass rusher capable of creating the kind of jarring hits that force the ball out. Even though he, like everybody else, has bulked up under Nick Savage, he’s still a little small to be drafted high as a defensive end in the NFL. But he’s a tackling machine who has always led by example, and assuming his shoulder is healthy, look for him to make the jump from good to great and put together a Jevon Kearse or Alex Brown level senior season either at DE or Todd Grantham’s rush slot- or both.

The leader (inside): Khairi Clark

He hasn’t gotten much ink throughout his career due to the presence of guys like Taven Bryan, but Clark has quietly grown into a senior leader of his own. A fifth year senior, Clark has gotten plenty of reps to date and now look for him to step into a larger role in Grantham’s more aggressive defense. He’s going to get a battle from Elijah Conliffe for the DT spot throughout the year, but with the way Grantham vacillates his look on defense, look for Clark to be the key run-stuffer on the interior.

The leader (buck): Jachai Polite. 

Polite is one of several reasons on this defense why stars don’t matter. A former three star recruit, Polite has grown into a terrifying pass rusher heading into his junior season. Look for him to become ever scarier in Grantham’s blitz-heavy defense. He needs to get a little better against the run at times, but overall is a huge asset to this defense.

The backup (outside): Jabari Zuniga

Another three star recruit who has already outplayed his expectations in his first two years, Zuniga is only a backup if the Gators line up a certain way. He’ll get plenty of playing time on the whole and that’s bad news for opponents. His ability to track down the football has proven to be a problem that most opponents cannot overcome without directing plays to go away from him, and look for him to have another exceptional season in 2018.

The backup (inside): Elijah Conliffe

As noted, I expect Conliffe to get tons of playing time in 2018; I’m calling him a backup merely for the uniformity of these posts. He’s a true monster in his own right who has dominated the summer practices so far, frequently invading the backfield with his combination of strength and speed. With the always relevant caveat of “assuming he stays healthy,” Conliffe should develop into the Gators’ newest stud on the inside of the defensive line.

The dark horse: Zach Carter

Again: it’s hard to know exactly where Carter is going to lineup because of Grantham’s head-spinningly often shifts. But to me, Carter projects best at the DE spot, followed by the hybrid buck role. He’s a filthy pass rusher and above average run stopper, so keep an eye out for him to be the most successful new face on this defense.

And don’t forget about: Malik Langham, Antonneous Clayton, Jeremiah Moon, Adam Shuler, Luke Ancrum, Andrew Chatfield, TJ Slaton

Projection: Florida is going to have a good defensive line in 2018. That’s basically a given. The question is whether it will be an elite defensive line, and honestly that answer hinges more on how Grantham oversees this defense than anything else. He has a tendency to fall in love with the blitz, and has been beaten because of it. If he can do it in moderation and not run his defensive line out of plays, Florida will have one of the best ten or fifteen defensive fronts in the nation.

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