Florida cornerback Chauncey Gardner Jr. (23) built on his bowl performance during spring practice. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Spring review: Position-by-position breakdown of UF defense

By Robbie Andreu Staff writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 5:03 PM

Now that Florida's Orange & Blue Debut is in the books, it's time to reflect on the 15 days of spring and project where the Gators might find themselves heading into the fall.

Here's a position-by-position look at the defense:

Defensive line

Getting it done: When facing a rebuilding project, it's always nice to start with players who have played before. That's the situation defensive line coach Chris Rumph found himself in this spring. In replacing starters Joey Ivie, Caleb Brantley and Bryan Cox Jr. (and not having the injured Jordan Sherit available), Rump had experienced players to work with, including five who started games last season — end/tackle Cece Jefferson, end Keivonnis Davis, end Jabari Zuniga, tackle Taven Bryan and tackle Khairi Clark. Several other players saw extensive playing time, led by ends Antonneous Clayton and Jachai Polite. So, with all that experience, it was a fairly seamless transition along the defensive front, with no obvious drop in production. Jefferson continues to do a nice job filling the Jon Bullard role as a combination end/tackle, lining up at either spot, depending on the situation. Brantley's playmaking ability inside is going to be hard to replace, but Clark and Bryan were strong and steady in the middle throughout the spring and should anchor a stingy UF run defense. The Gators have depth and experience at end.

Still needs work: Lack of depth at tackle is a major concern coming out of the spring. The Gators have only four scholarship tackles (not including Jefferson) — Clark, Bryan, unproven sophomore Luke Ancrum and true freshman and early enrollee Kyree Campbell. The Gators will be relying on incoming freshmen Elijah Conliffe and Tedarrell Slaton to get in the mix during camp in August.

Spring star: Zuniga started emerging as a redshirt freshman last season, leading the Gators in sacks with five. He followed with a breakout spring in which he developed into a dominant player against the run and as a pass rusher. He has a chance to become the kind of edge rusher the coaches have been searching for the past two years — a disruptive force who could give the Gators a strong pass rush without the help of blitzing linebackers.

Spring surprise: Early in camp last August, it looked like Clayton, one of the elite prospects in the 2016 recruiting class, was going to have an immediate impact at end. But by the time the season began, he had faded somewhat and ended up seeing playing time in only five games in the middle of the season. Since then, he's gained 35 pounds of muscle and turned up his competitive motor to high. He stood out throughout the spring and closed it out with a strong performance in the spring game.

Projected starters: Jefferson (DE/DT), Zuniga (DE), Clark (NT), Bryan (DT).

Linebacker

Getting it done: The Gators are replacing all three starters — but they actually already started doing that last season. Due to injuries to Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian in the latter part of the season, young players had to step into starting roles. And redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and true freshmen David Reese and Vosean Joseph not only went out and held their own, all played at a high level when they were called upon. The same can be said of Cristian Garcia, the walk-on who started the Outback Bowl in place of the injured Reese. With Reese out this spring, Garcia stepped in again and played well with the No. 1 defense. As for Johnson and Joseph, both seemed to make strides in their development and were consistent playmakers in the spring.

Still needs work: Reese missed the spring while still recovering from an injured wrist, which could slow what had been his rapid development since his arrival last spring. Reese is expected to make a healthy return, which is good. What's not good is what's behind the three starters and Garcia — young and unproven players. The four behind the top four are little-used sophomore Rayshad Jackson, former tight end Camrin Knight, redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon and true freshman James Houston, who is still recovering from ACL surgery. Depth is a potential problem in the fall.

Spring star: After having an impact (literally) in the last part of last season, Joseph looks like he's ready to take his game to another level based on an outstanding spring. With experience, he appears more comfortable in the defense, which is freeing him up mentally and allowing him to run and make plays. He may be the biggest hitter on the team.

Spring surprise: Moon — even though he's not really a surprise to the coaches, because they saw his athleticism and propensity for making plays in camp last August before he was lost for the season with a thumb injury. At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Moon has freakish athletic ability that allows him to play sort of a linebacker/safety hybrid role in the defense. He's big and strong enough to defend the run, but also quick and fast enough to cover tight ends and backs. We saw him do both in the spring game.

Projected starters: Joseph (OLB), Reese (MLB), Johnson (OLB).

Secondary

Getting it done: DBU may have started fading big time had Duke Dawson and Marcell Harris not returned for their senior season. But they did, and the secondary had that similar suffocating look throughout the spring and in the spring game. At least the starting secondary did. Dawson, who played safety and nickel the past two years, successfully transitioned back to cornerback and played at a high level. The same can be said of true sophomore Chauncey Gardner, the MVP of the Outback Bowl who made the switch to corner after playing safety and nickel last season. Gardner is capable of playing all the positions in the secondary, but appears comfortable (and confident) at corner, where the lack of depth is an issue. Harris and fellow senior Nick Washington bring stability and proven playmaking ability to the safety positions.

Still needs work: The starters at cornerback (Dawson and Gardner) played nickel and safety last season — and there is no proven depth behind them at corner. The lack of depth at corner is a problem that could be eased with the arrival of six true freshmen defensive backs this summer, including highly rated prospects Marco Wilson, Brad Stewart and Shawn Davis.

Spring star: Harris returned for his senior season in the hope of improving his draft status with the NFL. He may have already started doing that with his overall performance this spring. His coverage was sound and his tackling is one aspect of his game that appears dramatically improved. He also emerged as a leader this spring.

Spring surprise: Even though he was held out of contact work, redshirt freshman cornerback C.J. McWilliams showed enough in drills that the coaches are confident he'll be a major contributor in the fall. A gifted athlete who was undersized when he signed a year ago, McWilliams has gained about 25 pounds and now is up to 190.

Projected starters: Dawson (CB), Gardner (CB), Washington (S), Harris (S), McWilliams (N).

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.




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