DEFENSIVE TACKLE: My breakout player for the entire defense from the first week of fall camp resides here. Caleb Brantley has been everywhere. A few defensive players have warned of a breakout year for the redshirt sophomore, and it’s not hard to see why. At 6-2, 314 pounds, Brantley has shown an explosive first step and been disruptive during the first week of practice. He was frustrated at media day as he spoke about five missed sacks last year driving him through the offseason. He looks like a different player in camp.
Behind him, Taven Bryan continues to look like another player poised for a breakout. It’s not ideal to be leaning on players that need to break out at a position like defensive tackle, but both Brantley and Bryan look ready to handle it.
DEFENSIVE END: Alex McCalister has been held out some because of a hamstring injury, but it doesn’t seem like anything serious. Jonathan Bullard told me at media day that all he knew about his position was that his name was at defensive end for the first day of fall camp. We’ve seen him move around a lot up front, and that should continue throughout the season.
CeCe Jefferson has been the freshman defensive lineman that has been talked about the most. He’s ready to play physically and looks ready to make an immediate impact. We haven’t seen the production yet on the field from him, but Jabari Zuniga has the look of a freshman who could help on the defensive line. He’s listed at 6-3, 263 pounds and should be able to play as a freshman if he is strong enough.
LINEBACKER: I’ve spent a lot of time watching Antonio Morrison and have come away surprised at how good he looked during the first week. The coaches will still take it slow with him. To open camp, they’ve let him practice three straight days and then sit out one just to ease him back into the rhythm of so many practices. Other than the brace on his knee, it’s hard to find a sign of the knee injury suffered in the Birmingham Bowl.
McElwain continues to emphasize that they have no idea when Morrison will be back on the field. Morrison is the clear leader of the group, getting on teammates multiple times for doing drills wrong.
The coaches threw Alex Anzalone into the fire during the spring to make sure he would be ready to lead the group if Morrison wasn’t ready. When the Gators go with two linebackers on the field this fall, it’s Anzalone and Morrison out there. The two-linebacker look will likely happen a lot during the season since the Gators should still play a heavy percentage of nickel. Will Muschamp estimated that he played 70-75 percent in the nickel in recent years at Florida, and that seems like a good idea for Florida going forward.
Jarrad Davis looks healthy and hasn’t been limited from what we’ve seen. He also looks to have added some good weight, now listed at 230 and has gotten stronger. Another one that surprised by was freshman Rayshad Jackson. It doesn’t look like Florida will have to count on him this fall, but he has a frame that should be able to add weight and get stronger in his career.
CORNERBACK: The players are still the same, but things look much different than last season. Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor look significantly bigger than they did a year ago. They were getting ready for camp last season as true freshmen wondering how much they’d play. Now both will be heavily involved in the secondary and looked like they took the weight room seriously during the offseason. They both look like physically safeties, but they’ve kept the athleticism that helped them become impact players at cornerback last season. The Gators are in good shape at cornerback for the next few years.
It comes as no surprise that Vernon Hargreaves III has been himself this fall. His instincts are so impressive to watch. Even on quick dump down passes, the junior has shown a few plays where he breaks just before the ball is thrown for a pass breakup. Enjoy watching him this fall.
Brian Poole is the one that has fallen under the radar because of how well Hargreaves, Tabor and Wilson handled the cornerback spots last year, but Poole excelled as the team’s nickel. He’s a natural at the position and has lined up there most of the time with the first team.
SAFETY: It’s hard to pick a guy who started 10 games as another breakout potential on the Florida defense, but safety Keanu Neal looks ready for it. Other than Hargreaves, Neal would be my pick for the most impressive player on the Florida defense in the periods open to the media. From one-handed interceptions to multiple pass breakups, he is everywhere.
Marcus Maye was the best defensive player on the field Monday during the open part of practice. He picked off Treon Harris and had two other pass breakups. The Florida safeties improved in the second half of last season, but Neal and Maye look ready for big years.
One of the young guys that jumped out to me on the first day was Kylan Johnson. You can see that he’s still learning the safety position after playing mostly quarterback in high school, but he truly looks the part of a safety. He’s listed at 6-1, 220 pounds, and despite other safeties being listed at 6-1, you can clearly see Johnson is the tallest safety on the team. He looks like he could add more weight and play linebacker, but he runs well enough to stick at safety. Florida won’t need him this year and he might not be ready to play anyway, but keep him in mind for the future.