GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s defensive line is the most veteran group of the Gators’ youthful defense.
But behind those veterans is a four-player freshman class known as the “Bam Bam Kids” — defensive end Zachary Carter and defensive tackles T.J. Slaton, Elijah Conliffe and Kyree Campbell — with the size and talent to make an impact on an SEC defense.
Carter has yet to see the field while he waits his turn behind a group of defensive ends in Jordan Sherit, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite that has morphed into one of the top pass-rushing groups in the SEC.
The three tackles, however, are getting quality snaps while rotating in for veterans Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark.
“We’re relying on them Saturday not just to be guys that are filling roles,” defensive line coach Chris Rumph said. “They have to go out there and play.”
Slaton has received most of the hype from the group.
He was a 4-star offensive line prospect in the 2017 recruiting class out of American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., but the Gators opted to play him at defensive tackle.
And at 6-foot-4 and 358 pounds, Slaton’s size alone creates problems for opposing offensive linemen.
“Everybody thought the doggone eclipse was because of the sun,” Rumph said. “Nah, it was (Slaton) walking downtown.”
On the season, Slaton leads the “Bam Bam Kids” with 6 tackles (1.5 for loss) and a quarterback hurry.
“Going against him, he’s only making me better,” guard Brett Heggie said. “I don’t think I’m going to see too many guys as big as him or as athletic as him.”
His potential was on display in the third quarter of Florida’s 38-24 win over Vanderbilt. With the Commodores facing a second-and-1, Slaton rushed through the middle of Vanderbilt’s offensive line and engulfed running back Ralph Webb for a 2-yard loss.
Rumph said the main thing Slaton needs to focus on is slimming down.
“He’s getting big,” Rumph said. “[Slaton] said, ‘Man, coach, I’m not eating anything. I’m not eating anything.’ I said, ‘What? Air doesn’t have any calories.’
“Once he gets into shape, the sky’s the limit for this guy.”
Campbell is the veteran of the freshmen.
He enrolled early and went through spring practice, giving him a head start on the playbook.
This also helped Campbell serve as a confidant for his fellow classmates once they got on campus in the summer.
“They had somebody [in Campbell], when they were feeling down, like, ‘Hey man, let’s go, we’ve got to keep this thing going,'” Rumph said.
Campbell’s knowledge of the playbook also led to more extensive playing time early.
The 6-3, 305-pound defensive tackle recorded 5 tackles through the first three games of the season before injuring his knee against Vanderbilt. He sat out the LSU game last weekend but is expected to be back on Saturday against Texas A&M.
Conliffe has only played in three games this season and recorded his first career tackle last week against LSU.
But the 6-4, 317-pound freshman is becoming more involved in the defense.
Rumph said the main goal with Conliffe — as with Slaton — is to increase his endurance so he can stay on the field for more than a few plays at a time before having to be subbed out.
That comes with time, though.
“They’ve got a little small tank right now. They go really fast,” Rumph said. “But once they get a full year and get accustomed to everything, I think the tank is getting larger and I think they’re wind is getting larger.”
Carter hasn’t appeared in a game yet this season, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with his talent or potential.
Carter was a 4-star recruit and the third-ranked strongside defensive end in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite.
However, he’s also a first-year player at a position that might be Florida’s deepest this season.
The Gators’ quartet of Sherit, Jefferson, Zuniga and Polite has combined for 22 quarterback hurries, 20 tackles for loss and 9 sacks in five games this season.
That has pushed him to the third-string defense, giving him the opportunity to learn from a veteran group his first season on campus.
The next step
As the Bam Bam Kids continue to see their roles increase on the team, Rumph said they need to continue to find the balance of playing on Saturdays with handling everything else they need to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
On a given weekday, they’re balancing team meeting, class, practice, another round of meetings and tutoring along with time they spend away from the team getting ready for game day.
“They’re coming in and actually playing and playing in some meaningful spots during the game and not just at the end of the game when the game’s over when you’re up 50 points or whatever the case may be and you say, ‘All right, go in there and get some reps,'” Rumph said. “These guys are playing some meaningful reps. So I’m happy for them.”
They might not be relied on as much in their first year as, say, cornerbacks Marco Wilson or C.J. Henderson, but Rumph knows they are getting valuable reps that are going to help them as their collegiate careers continue.
“Those four guys, I’m really happy we have those guys,” Rumph said. “I think they’re going to be really, really good.”
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