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Deep end of the Swamp: Freshmen must sink or swim, fast, for Florida defense

Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon.
TIM CASEY/FLORIDA ATHLETICS

The Florida defense hasn’t needed true freshmen to step in and play a significant role in recent seasons. This fall will be different.

The defense needs more help from the incoming class than the offense does. When was the last time that was the case in Gainesville?

The Gators still boast an enviable starting 11 on defense, but depth is one of UF’s greatest concerns coming out of spring practice. Several true freshmen will have to be able to make a quick transition to the college game, which puts pressure on new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon (pictured above).

Florida’s defense was ravaged late last season with linebackers Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone and safety Marcus Maye missing at least the last four games, but the unit still played relatively well. This season, the defense doesn’t appear nearly as equipped to lose three of its top players without a huge regression.

End is the only spot where UF has quality depth. The Gators likely will start Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson. Shannon has a formidable rotation featuring Jordan Sherit (who will miss at least the start of fall camp with a knee injury suffered in last season’s loss to Florida State), Keivonnis Davis, Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton.

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The Gators have the luxury of redshirting touted freshman Zachary Carter if they choose. That luxury doesn’t really exist anywhere else on defense.

The tackle spots are the biggest weakness. Starters Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark (five combined starts last season) have to produce. Compounding the problem is what’s behind them. Three true freshmen – Kyree Campbell (an early enrollee), Tedarrell Slaton (who was recruited by most schools as an offensive lineman) and Elijah Conliffe – could easily become the top reserves by the middle of fall camp. Polite and Jefferson are versatile enough to move inside in obvious pass situations, but this position could be a disaster for UF if hit hard by injuries.

The three starting linebackers – Vosean Joseph, David Reese and Kylan Johnson – performed well when called upon last season. They form an exciting trio. But, again, depth is a major concern.

Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon looks the part of an emerging standout and should be the top backup to both Joseph and Johnson. Junior walk-on Cristian Garcia is a decent reserve behind Reese. The Gators signed four linebackers, but none appear to be instant-impact players. UF really needs to get 13 (or more) games out of Reese, who missed spring with a wrist injury.

The secondary has an enviable quartet of starters with Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner at cornerback and Marcell Harris and Nick Washington at safety. But there is a steep drop-off. Redshirt freshman C.J. McWilliams earned consistent praise during spring drills and could be the team’s nickelback.

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The depth chart is a blur after that. The Gators have six defensive backs arriving this summer, and at least three will have to be ready to play when the season opens against Michigan on September 2. Florida signed an impressive group headlined by C.J. Henderson, Brad Stewart and Marco Wilson.

Florida faces Michigan, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida State in the regular season. That’s a lot of wear and tear. The Gators’ defense won’t remain in the top five in the nation, but it still should be good.

But if depth doesn’t develop quickly in August, UF’s defense could get regularly exposed if starters at thin positions end up in the training room. For the first time in years, the Florida defense needs the kids to be all right right away.

(You can email Hays Carlyon at email hidden; JavaScript is required and follow him on Twitter @HaysCarlyon)

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