Florida's D-line vs. Georgia's D-line: Which will be better this season?
Florida and Georgia are two of the most recognizable programs in college football. Their rivalry has spanned generations and defined legacies.
Both schools have had their fair share of elite defenses over the years — the Gators have had a string of imposing defenses recently, and the Bulldogs appear to be on their way to building one of their own.
The SEC East should be a tight race, and it may very well come down to which team is able to keep its opponent out of the end zone. To accomplish that, a stout defensive line is paramount.
So, which school has the better defensive line heading into 2017?
The argument for Florida
Florida lost some decent veteran talent from last season, including Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie, but it has intriguing pieces remaining. The Gators don’t have bona fide stars returning, but they have players with great potential and they have solid depth.
Defensive end should be one of the most interesting positions to watch next season. Sophomore Jabari Zuniga (below) started only three games in 2016 but led Florida with five sacks and finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. He appears to have the most potential to become a difference-maker.
Cece Jefferson and Jordan Sherit are the main candidates to line up at the opposite defensive end spot. A former 5-star prospect, Jefferson has yet to live up to expectations at Florida, but he is a versatile athlete who can make an impact inside and outside. When healthy, Sherit is an integral part of the Gators’ rotation. He finished second on the team with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss last season in limited time.
Antonneous Clayton and Keivonnis Davis are two other pieces in the rotation who help make defensive end one of the deepest positions on Florida’s roster.
The interior of Florida’s line is not as deep, but it possesses good starting talent. Given the depth at defensive end, the Gators have discussed moving Jefferson inside to defensive tackle. Outside of that potential move, the two projected starters are Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan.
As a redshirt junior, Clark will be one of the veterans along the line. Although his stats from last season don’t jump off the page – 16 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack – Clark has told reporters he has improved this spring. Bryan, another redshirt junior, was a bit more productive last year with 17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The loss of Brantley will hurt on the interior, but Clark and Bryan should at the very least be serviceable.
The argument for Georgia
The Bulldogs will be without former defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who was dismissed earlier this year, but new coach Tray Scott is inheriting a great situation. Georgia’s defense is expected to be among the best in the conference, and the line is an important part of that equation.
Kirby Smart has said that he expects defensive tackle Trent Thompson (below) to return to the program over the summer, a vital addition for the Bulldogs. Not only is Thompson — who recorded 56 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks — the best player on Georgia’s defensive line, he is arguably the best player on the defense, period.
Returning at defensive end are Jonathan Ledbetter and David Marshall. Although Ledbetter missed six games due to a suspension last year, he became a key player once he rejoined the rotation. Marshall was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman. Although he was only a 3-star recruit, Marshall earned significant playing time and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Long-time nose tackle John Atkins is also back. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Atkins doesn’t show up on the stat sheet in a major way, but he is instrumental in Georgia’s run defense and able to eat up blocks for the linebackers.
Behind the starters, Georgia boasts impressive depth. Julian Rochester, DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, Tyler Clark and Michail Carter are all reserve players with great upside. Rochester, Clark and Carter are entering their second seasons in Athens, and last year’s experience should lead to improved play. Incoming freshmen Robert Beal and Malik Herring are highly-touted defensive ends who could make an impact sooner rather than later.
Both lines have enticing talent, veteran experience and returning depth. Florida and Georgia have had some of the best defenses in the SEC East’s history, so it’s no surprise to see players of this caliber on their rosters.
The Gators will need to figure out how to replace Brantley and Ivey, but Zuniga looks like a promising player and there are several former high-rated prospects.
Georgia has the benefit of returning every major contributor from last season, assuming Thompson is back for the fall. Smart is one of the best defensive minds in today’s game, and he’s recruited exceptionally well.
The Bulldogs have a combined 45 starts returning in 2017, while the Gators have 36. That experience, combined with the top-end talent in Thompson and the number of promising young players behind him give Georgia the nod.