Redshirt junior Jordan Sherit knew all along that Florida had depth along its defensive line. The country now knows it, too.
While Sherit and seniors Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. tended to injuries that limited their availability over the past month, a handful of Florida’s younger linemen stepped into the starting lineup during the heart of UF’s Southeastern Conference schedule.
No dropoff. No weak link.
“That type of game experience … is making them better,” Sherit said.
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Having a fully healthy defensive line should help down the stretch, too.
With the return of seasoned veterans coupled with the emerging youngsters, Florida has a 10-player rotation along the defensive line, a rotation that has the chance to be a decisive factor as the Gators look to close out the regular season on a high note.
Look no further than Florida’s 24-10 win over Georgia on Saturday for evidence.
The Gators pressured Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason on 13 of his 33 pass attempts and sacked him on two other plays.
The defensive line forced him out of the pocket, failed to let him set his feet and created havoc in the backfield.
The pressure was consistent from the first drive to the last, thanks mostly in part to players being rested by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.
“They’re not worried about the stat piece,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “I think the biggest thing in that game, it wasn’t the sacks, but it was the amount of times you force the quarterback to be uncomfortable.”
On the season, UF has sacked or hurried the opposing quarterback on 60 of his 194 dropbacks — about 31 percent of the time.
Three of the Gators’ 10 interceptions, including the two that were returned for touchdowns in their 40-14 win over Missouri, came when the quarterback was hurried.
In the run game, the Gators are holding opponents to 3 yards per carry, the sixth-best mark in the nation.
And it’s the less-experienced players leading the charge.
Redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga leads the Gators with five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Sophomore CeCe Jefferson has the versatility to rotate as both a defensive tackle and an edge rusher.
Redshirt sophomore Khairi Clark has been a complementary piece to redshirt junior Caleb Brantley on the inside, helping battle double-teams to allow his fellow linemen and linebackers to swarm into the backfield.
But with veterans coming back from injury, the younger guys know they need to keep the intensity up as they battle for snaps.
“[The underclassmen have] tasted some of that stuff and how it feels, and they don’t want to relinquish it,” defensive line coach Chris Rumph said, “and now the old guys are like, ‘hold on now. I’m the big dog here.’ … It’s creating competition, which is always good.”
That competition should be on full display once again when the Gators, ranked 11th in the first College Football Playoff poll, travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to face the Razorbacks on Saturday.
Arkansas has given up 21 sacks this year, second-most in the SEC.
“Very disruptive, very talented, very sudden,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said of UF’s defense.
Sherit, who missed most of October after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, said the emphasis in practice has been on controlling the line of scrimmage, which UF has done well on its way to a 6-1 record.
“If we can do that,” Sherit said, “we’ll win the game.”