It was so unexpected. It shouldn’t have happened. Not there. Not then. But there was Antonneous Clayton, Florida’s former five-star defensive end recruit, writhing in pain ahead of UF’s game against Florida State back in November.
He’d torn his UCL, a ligament in his elbow, prior to that contest with the Seminoles in a pregame accident. And when speaking with reporters on Thursday, he had the scar on his arm to prove it.
“That was kind of going to be my signature breakout game,” he said, referencing Florida’s barrage of injuries at defensive end entering that game. “But everything happens for a reason.”
Clayton used that as a mantra following his injury when he’d wake up at 7 every morning to go see team trainers. Or when he’d pray for the strength the preserve. Or when consuming his daily 6,000 calories of baked chicken, broccoli and mashed potatoes — a recipe that’s helped him grow from 220 pounds to 260 pounds. He’s hoping that offseason regiment leads to a breakout campaign. But he’s not UF’s only defensive lineman primed for success in 2017.
When asked what player he thinks is most likely to break out this season, safety Jeawon Taylor didn’t have to think very long.
“Jachai Polite,” he said. “He’s looking great this camp.”
Polite, like Clayton, is entering his second season as a Gator, though his first one showed more promise. Polite played in 12 games and recorded 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in reserve duty. So far this preseason, he’s gotten some work with the first-team defense.
“He’s definitely stepped up,” linebacker Jeremiah Moon said. “He’s having a great fall camp. He’s making plays everywhere, so definitely watch out for him.”
Polite and Clayton are joined by redshirt senior Jordan Sherit, redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga, junior CeCe Jefferson and junior Keivonnis Davis as likely contributors along the edge. Six-foot-seven redshirt freshman Jordan Smith and four-star true freshman Zachary Carter round out the group. But in the middle, the depth isn’t comparable.
Redshirt junior Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan are a sure bet as starters at defensive tackle, and Polite said he expects no drop-off from former starters Joey Ivie and Caleb Brantley.
“They’re the same,” he said. “It’s just next man up, that’s all it is.”
Behind them, though, there’s inexperience.
While no official depth chart at the position has been released, McElwain has praised redshirt sophomore Luke Ancrum as a player to watch, but he notched three tackles in seven games a season ago. And beyond him, the Gators have offensive line transplant Richerd Desir-Jones and a trio of true freshmen. Granted, one of them — Tedarrell Slaton — is the heaviest player on the team at 358 pounds and was also Florida’s highest-ranked recruit in 2017. And another — Kyree Campbell — was in Gainesville for spring football and earned praise from Clayton.
“He’s made a lot of plays,” Clayton said. “He’s really impressed us this offseason as well. In camp, you’ll see the guy make a lot of plays. He never gives up, he always runs to the ball after the play.”
Whether that translates to meaningful snaps behind Bryan and Clark is still a question.
Clayton also said as far as his own play this season, he thinks about his injury all the time. It reminds the former four-star defensive end of all the people calling him a bust on social media. He was rated the 26th best player in the country in the class of 2016, and he knows he didn’t live up to the hype as a freshman. So entering year two, his scar serves not just as proof of what was, but as a reminder of what could be.
“It wasn’t my time,” he said, “so God kind of caused that to happen. I just think it was more of a stronger comeback than a setback.”
▪ Malik Zaire took reps with the first-team offense again during Thursday’s open portion of practice. During the sequence, Zaire showcased his mobility with some designed run plays and a rollout pass that was completed to tight end DeAndre Goolsby.
▪ Left tackle Martez Ivey was back after suffering a minor knee injury and briefly worked with the first-team offense during Thursday's open period. He was replaced by freshman and Miami Booker T. Washington alum Kadeem Telfort, thought it didn’t look to be injury-related. Ivey was back to doing drills moments later.
▪ “SEC Nation,” the SEC Network’s traveling pregame show, will open the season at the Florida-Michigan game in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2. Former LSU coach Les Miles will be an analyst on the broadcast, and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier will be on the show as well.