Despite key departures, Florida's defensive line still has bite

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Khairi Clark has a major bone to pick with the critics.

Florida's gruff third-year defensive lineman has heard the chatter about the Gators losing all pf that talent up front. He has heard about the gaping holes along the defensive line created by the departures of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr.

He's getting the impression that his defensive line is just some run-of-the-mill unit not fit to carry the proud Florida trench tradition.

“A lot of people don’t have the mindset for us to be a dominant group, but I feel like we can be a great group," Clark told ESPN earlier this month. “Little do they know that we’re a dominant group of guys who have a lot of talent and can shock a lot of people."

Clark delivered those words without a hint of a smile. The slightest snicker didn't even slip through his teeth.

Clark, who will be a redshirt junior this fall, is legitimately miffed with how people are overlooking him and his defensive line. And if you just look at the returning numbers alone, Clark has a point.

Brantley, Ivie and Cox, who dealt with injuries for most of 2016, accounted for 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year. While Brantley and Ivie were major disruptors up front, the Gators still have a another group of nasty faces to frustrate offenses.

Including Clark, whose only TFL last year was a sack, Florida returns 30.5 TFLs and 15.5 sacks from defensive linemen in 2016. A lot of the production came from rising edge-rusher Jabari Zuniga, who led the Gators with five sacks and was second with 8.5 TFLs. This year, he'll be partnered with senior Jordan Sherit, who was second behind Zuniga with 3.5 sacks and had five TFLs, and former five-star Cece Jefferson, who has slimmed down and is considered by Jim McElwain to be one of the Gators' most versatile matchup linemen.

“They’re the real war daddies of the defensive end spot," Clark said.

McElwain wants veterans such as Jefferson, Clark and Bryan to take full hold of this line, but the youngsters are really turning heads. Zuniga, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall, was one of the SEC's least talked-about edge-rushers, especially when you consider that four of his five sacks came against UMass and North Texas. But Clark and McElwain have been pleased with his consistency and drive this spring. Zuniga's athleticism is also hard to match.

Sophomore Jachai Polite had a pleasant start to his Florida career with 3.5 TFLs and two sacks last year, and he'll be called upon more on the outside, as will former ESPN 300 member Antonneous Clayton. The No. 2 DE in the 2016 class, Clayton has started to add the right weight and is making the needed strides to improve his depth chart stock.

McElwain and Clark have also been impressed with the early development of rising junior Keivonnis Davis. While he didn't mark up the stat sheet, he's starting to separate himself more in practices, shaking off the inconsistencies that have held him back in the past.

Something else that Clark believes has held this group back is the desire to play through injuries. Without naming names, Clark called out his group for previous bouts with a softer approach to pain. Little nicks that held guys out of practice or caused them to take drills off aren't having the same effect, Clark said. This time around, guys are fighting through the pain.

“Everybody is always there. No one’s going to cry themselves out because they have a little injury or if they’re banged up a little bit," Clark said. "Everyone’s going to stay as one unit."

And this unit has the ability to turn some heads in 2017. The addition of prep school standout Kyree Campbell this spring adds another big body in the middle, while this line will get more help from incoming freshmen Elijah Conliffe and Zachary Carter this summer.

The potential excites McElwain, but he's also looking for more "consistency and performance" out of this group before spring officially ends in less than a month. That'll come with more quality reps, but to Clark, it'll also come because this unit is hungry to prove its worth.

“I don’t think there are a lot of defensive linemen better than us," he said.