Joey Ivie saw the potential throughout the season.
He saw Jabari Zuniga, the redshirt freshman defensive lineman who ended up leading the team in sacks.
He saw it in David Reese and Kylan Johnson, the young linebackers who stepped in for injured veterans Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone without missing a beat.
And he saw it in Marcell Harris, the redshirt junior safety who played a pivotal role two goal-line stands — the first on the road against LSU to clinch the SEC East and the second in Florida’s 30-3 Outback Bowl victory over Iowa to close out the season on a positive note — during his first year of extensive playing time.
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“All the guys bought in,” Ivie, a senior, said. “All the guys did their job correctly, and that’s the thing at the end of the day you buy in, you have great fundamentals, you have great technique, you have success.”
And now, those younger or less experienced players are set to become the leaders of Florida’s defense next season. Eight starters are gone — included among them are both of Florida’s defensive tackles, its top two linebackers, both its starting cornerbacks, and the team’s top safety.
Overall, UF is returning 14 players who have started at least one game but just three who have at least 10 career starts.
But returning is a bevy of untapped talent that has the possibility to uphold the defensive standards Florida has had in recent history.
“Good players follow good players,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “The credit should be given to those older guys for what they did to help these guys understand and indoctrinate them into the way that they go about their business. Now, the important thing is they’re going to have to pass that torch, and that’s going to happen.”
The two most critical spots that need to be filled are at cornerback and defensive tackle.
In the secondary, UF and newly promoted defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will be working next season without both Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, a pair of potential first-round draft picks.
Over three seasons, the two combined for 50 starts at cornerback and tallied 15 interceptions and 42 additional pass breakups. UF finished in the top 15 in pass defense each of the past two seasons.
Likely replacements include Duke Dawson — a soon-to-be senior who has spent most of his UF career as a nickel corner — and Chauncey Gardner — a hybrid cornerback/safety who recorded two fourth-quarter interceptions in the Outback Bowl. Florida also has a pair of four-star cornerback commitments in Marco Wilson — Quincy’s younger brother — and Elijah Blades.
“We’ve got some pretty good guys,” Tabor said. “This is ‘DB-U’ so it [doesn’t] matter who we put around. We gonna be good.”
On the defensive line, the Gators lose all three of their main interior guys in Ivie, Caleb Brantley and Bryan Cox Jr. The trio finished the season with 15.5 tackles-for-loss and 16 quarterback hurries.
The Gators’ most-experienced returner at defensive tackle is redshirt sophomore Khairi Clark, a former four-star recruit out of Chaminade-Madonna. He has 23 total tackles and two sacks in 27 career games.
▪ The Gators finished 14th in the final AP Top 25 poll, released Tuesday morning. It’s Florida’s highest finish since the end of the 2012 season, when the Gators were ranked ninth in the nation.