Projecting the Florida Gators’ depth chart on defense

GAINESVILLE, Fla.  — The biggest questions about Florida’s defense are ones that can’t and won’t be answered until the Gators play a game.

In losing eight guys to the NFL, rebuilding a secondary and turning over the reins to a new defensive coordinator in Randy Shannon, only time will tell how the unit looks against real competition.

As for the depth chart, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of questions there.

On Monday we took a look at the offense, and here’s an educated guess at the defensive side.

The wild card remains sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr., who has spent all camp working at safety  — at least in the periods open to reporters — so that’s where we’ll put him. But it still wouldn’t surprise anyone if he ended up at cornerback against Michigan in the opener on Sept. 2, or at any other point this fall.

Defensive end

  • 1. CeCe Jefferson, junior
  • 2a. Jachai Polite, sophomore
  • 2b. Antonneous Clayton, sophomore

Jefferson has the ability to play inside or out, but the Gators need him the most at defensive end. He’s one of their best all-around defensive players and they need to get more pressure off the edge this fall.

Clayton was a headliner in Florida’s 2016 recruiting class and is highly motivated to deliver on that potential after a quiet freshman season. He’s added 40 pounds and says he’s much more comfortable in the playbook, so look for him to be a factor as well.

Defensive tackle

  • 1. Taven Bryan, redshirt junior
  • 2. Luke Ancrum, redshirt sophomore
  • 3. Elijah Conliffe, freshman

We’ve been touting Bryan all camp as an under-the-radar key to Florida’s defense. He replaces Caleb Brantley, who was a disruptive force in the middle of the defensive line last year. The term teammates use for Bryan is “beast.” He’s one of the strongest players on the team and physically capable of filling that void, but he still has to prove it.

Ancrum has earned praise from coach Jim McElwain this preseason and Conliffe  — listed at 6-foot-4, 312 pounds — is raw but huge for a freshman. 

Nose tackle

  • 1. Khairi Clark, redshirt junior
  • 2. Kyree Campbell, freshman
  • 3. T.J. Slaton, freshman

Clark got a lot of significant playing time last season and is the incumbent here. He’ll bring a steadying presence to the middle of the line.

Campbell joined the Gators as an early enrollee and has earned mentions from McElwain this camp while Slaton (listed at 6-foot-4, 349 pounds) is another massive freshman who will contribute this fall.

Jabari Zunia-Florida Gators-Florida football-Florida
Teammates are expecting an even bigger second season from defensive end Jabari Zuniga. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Defensive end

  • 1. Jabari Zuniga, redshirt sophomore
  • 2. Jordan Sherit, redshirt senior
  • 3. Keivonnis Davis, junior ( *suspended for season opener)

Zuniga led Florida with 5 sacks last season, but most of his pass-rushing production came early in the fall. He has been mentioned by teammates as a guy ready to have a truly breakout season in 2017, so look for those numbers to increase.

Sherit has been working his way back from a knee injury all offseason and will be ready to contribute as well after logging 3.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss in 2016.

Linebacker

  • 1. Vosean Joseph, sophomore
  • 2. Ventrell Miller, freshman ( *suspended for season opener)

Middle linebacker

  • 1. David Reese, sophomore
  • 2. Cristian Garcia, redshirt senior

Linebacker

  • 1. Kylan Johnson, redshirt sophomore
  • 2. Jeremiah Moon, redshirt freshman

This is Florida’s biggest depth concern, especially with Miller and fellow freshman James Houston suspended for the season opener.

We won’t bother guessing at the three-deep here. The bottom line is the Gators need their top four linebackers  — Reese, Joseph, Johnson and Moon — to stay healthy.

There have been indications that Florida might favor more three-linebacker sets this year with Johnson and Moon replacing the role of a nickel defensive back. The coaches like their versatility and ability to drop into coverage if needed.

Cornerback

  • 1. Duke Dawson, senior
  • 2. Marco Wilson, freshman
  • 3. Brian Edwards, freshman

Dawson is going to have to be the steadying presence in Florida’s young secondary, and he’s looked good in camp after sliding over from the nickel role he played last fall.

Wilson has been working as the first-team nickel when the Gators go to five defensive backs, so he and Dawson will be on the field together at times. But should the Gators have to replace Dawson for any stretch of time, Wilson seems the most ready of the young corners.

Cornerback

  • 1. Joseph Putu, senior
  • 2. C.J. Henderson, freshman
  • 3. McArthur Burnett, redshirt freshman

Putu is interesting. He joined the Gators last season as a junior college transfer and didn’t get many defensive snaps. But he’s lined up with the starters all camp, in the periods open to reporters, and unless Gardner slides back to corner, then Putu is in line to be the guy.

Henderson also has received some first-team reps this preseason and is a high-upside newcomer who could see his role grow through the season.

Safety 

  • 1. Nick Washington, redshirt senior
  • 2. Shawn Davis, freshman
  • 3. Brad Stewart, freshman

Washington has been dealing with shoulder injuries this camp, opening the door for Davis to get more reps with the first-team defense.

If healthy, Washington remains the starter here, but Davis has really impressed this preseason and will be on the field in some capacity this fall. He and Stewart are part of the Gators’ group of six intriguing freshmen DBs.

Florida Gators football-Chauncey Gardner Jr.-spring game-2017
Sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr. is a key to Florida’s defensive hopes in 2017. (Ryan Young/SEC Country)

Safety

  • 1. Chauncey Gardner Jr., sophomore
  • 2. Jeawon Taylor, sophomore
  • 3. Donovan Stiner, freshman

Wherever Gardner plays this fall, he has the chance to be the star of this secondary. He finished last season starting at safety after injuries struck the defense and tallied 3 interceptions over the final three games, including two in the Outback Bowl to earn game MVP honors.

Taylor seems ready for more responsibility this fall after playing mostly on special teams last season, and Stiner is yet another of Florida’s impressive freshmen. Redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton would be on this list, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy and get on the field, last season or this preseason. He remains a guy to keep an eye on, though.

The post Projecting the Florida Gators’ depth chart on defense appeared first on SEC Country.

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