Defensive Replacements: How the Gators will fill starting roles

Feb 16, 2020 | 0 comments


Now that the hysteria that is National Signing Day has come and gone, the 2020 Gators roster is basically set. While UF returns enough talent to compete for an SEC East title, they must find a way to replace 11 starters.

Some of the replacements are pretty straightforward and should have minimal drop-off, if any. Other positions don’t have obvious successors and could prove a bit more daunting to fill.

Here is our breakdown of each vacant offensive starting job as the Gators prepare for spring practices.

Up earlier was the offense.


  • Buck: Jonathan Greenard
  • Probable Replacement: Jeremiah Moon or Mohamoud Diabate
  • Dark Horse Candidate: Brenton Cox

The Situation: Greenard led the SEC with 9.5 sacks despite being hampered for nearly a month with an injury. However, if there’s one position where the Gators are built to overcome losing a player of his caliber, it’s at ‘Buck.’ Moon will get a final chance to live up to his huge potential. He turned in the best season of his career in 2019 with three sacks and 6.5 tackles-for-loss before missing the final four games with an injury. He’s shown flashes of brilliance but needs to be more consistent, particularly against the run. Diabate broke out late in the season with three sacks and a forced fumble against Vanderbilt. He needs to get stronger and improve his run defense before he can become a three-down player. Cox, a transfer from Georgia, will be eligible this season after sitting out last season. Where the former five-star recruit fits in is uncertain, as he has the flexibility to play ‘Buck,’ strong-side defensive end or a more traditional linebacker position.

  • Defensive End: Jabari Zuniga
  • Probable Replacement: Zachary Carter
  • Dark Horse Candidate: None

The Situation: In reality, the Gators replaced Zuniga after the third game of the 2019 season. Zuniga suffered a badly sprained ankle against Kentucky and played bits and pieces of three games the rest of the way. Carter likely won’t provide the same pass rush as Zuniga did when he was healthy, but he should be a monster against the run. A picture made its way around Twitter earlier this week of Carter sitting in a meeting room and looking absolutely massive. Carter later confirmed that he’s up to 287 pounds. While they signed four-star prospect Princely Umanmielen, they would probably play with two ‘Bucks’ on the field if Carter were to get injured.

  • Defensive Tackle: Adam Shuler
  • Probable Replacement: Tedarrell Slaton
  • Dark Horse Candidate: Elijah Conliffe

The Situation: Shuler was undersized but played with a high motor during his two seasons as a Gator. Slaton couldn’t be any more opposite. He’s a 358-pound behemoth who has struggled with his motor and his conditioning. He showed signs of progress late in 2019 though, recording 1.5 sacks and two tackles-for-loss over the final three games. If he continues on that trajectory, he should eat up a ton of space and free up the Gators’ new defensive ends to make plays in the backfield. Conliffe opened the 2018 campaign as a starter prior to being benched after Kentucky gashed them for more than 300 rushing yards. He missed all of 2019 with a right foot injury but should be back in plenty of time for next season.

  • Linebacker: David Reese
  • Probable Replacement: James Houston
  • Dark Horse Candidate: Ty’Ron Hopper

The Situation: Reese wasn’t the greatest athlete, and he struggled in coverage, but he might be the most important starter to replace. He was perhaps one of the nation’s most consistent run-stuffers, and his leadership and knowledge of the defense aren’t easily replicated. The staff seems to prefer seasoned veterans over young raw talent, so Houston should get the first crack in the middle. Like Reese, he’s a short, thick linebacker who doesn’t have ideal speed for a modern linebacker. As Reese’s top backup a season ago, he finished sixth on the team with 38 tackles and tied for fourth with 3.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Hopper may currently be too undersized to man the middle, he excells enough in coverage that he might be too good to keep out of the starting unit for long.

  • Cornerback: CJ Henderson
  • Probable Replacement: Trey Dean/Marco Wilson
  • Dark Horse Candidate: Ethan Pouncey/Jahari Rogers

The Situation: While he had a bit of a down year as a junior, Henderson was still one of the conference’s top corners and will likely be a first-round draft pick in a couple of months. Dean split time with Kaiir Elam opposite of him over the past three games after a failed experiment at nickel. Wilson moved inside to replace him. Elam has secured one of the starting corner spots, but the Gators have some options on the other side of the field. Do they start the season like they finished last season, with Dean outside and Wilson at nickel? Or, do they move Wilson back outside to his preferred position? The answer likely depends on the development of their young nickels, such as Chester Kimbrough and Tre’Vez Johnson. If they feel comfortable with one of them at nickel, expect Wilson to start outside. If they struggle, they might have no choice but to leave Wilson inside or turn to one of the early entry freshmen such as Ethan Pouncey or Jahari Rogers.

  • Safety: Jeawon Taylor
  • Probable Replacement: Brad Stewart
  • Dark Horse Candidate: Rashad Torrence

The Situation: While Taylor was a starter last season, the Gators rotated their top-4 safeties so interchangeably that this doesn’t feel like much of a loss at all. Taylor battled injuries for most of his career, and he seemed hesitant to stick his head in the pile and take on ballcarriers. Stewart will likely slide back into the starting lineup in 2020 as long as he can avoid the disciplinary problems that he’s encountered the past two seasons. He looked like a burgeoning star in 2018 with his combination of coverage and physicality but made just 28 stops and zero pass breakups in 2019. If he bounces back, Florida should be fine on the back end. If he falters, Torrence, a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, should get the next opportunity.

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