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

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