Zach Carter’s journey has come full circle as he looks to build upon a breakout 2020 campaign and impressive start to the 2021 season. Carter, a highly touted four-star composite recruit coming out of Hillsborough High School in Tampa, was a top 150 player and the number three strong-side defensive end in the country when he decided to commit to the Gators and then 2nd year Head Coach Jim McElwain back in 2016. Five years later he returns to play in front of his hometown for the first time this week as the Gators travel to Raymond James Stadium to take on the USF Bulls.
After redshirting his freshman year in 2017, Carter played sparingly for the Gators in 2018 appearing in 9 games as a reserve defensive lineman. In 2019 Carter appeared in all 13 games including 2 starts against Vanderbilt and Missouri registering 31 tackles and tying for second on the team with a career high in sacks (4.5) and tackles-for-loss (7.0), leading many to believe he was in store for a huge leap forward in 2020.
The 2020 season did indeed prove to a breakout campaign for the Redshirt Junior, however he spent most of it starting at Defensive Tackle instead of his more natural position of Defensive End, due to various reasons and lack of depth. Despite the position change, Carter totaled a career high 36 tackles and led the Gators defense with 5.0 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss respectively. After a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game (the Gators first appearance since 2016) many thought this would be his last season in the Orange & Blue, opting to enter his name into the NFL Draft.
Carter, though, had different plans deciding to return to Gainesville for his Redshirt-Senior season to make another run at an SEC Championship. Carter was selected to represent the Gators at SEC Media Days this past July where he was asked by a reporter about his decision to return.
“I just felt like we really had some unfinished business and I wanted to be apart of that. I remember after the SEC Championship game, I probably stayed on the field for about 5 minutes after watching the confetti come down and all of that and I’ll never forget that moment” said Carter. “At that moment, I was like, we’ll be back, you know. I kinda made a promise to myself that I’m gonna give everything I got this year and I’m gonna try help my team the best I can, help lead my team the best I can.”
Thanks to increased depth at the DT position due to transfers like Daquon Newkirk, Tyrone Truesdell and Antonio Valentino along with highly touted Sophomore Gervon Dexter, Carter will be spending most of this 2021 season at his more natural SDE position. In preparation for 2021, Carter spent the offseason making changes to his body in order to be a menace coming off the edge.
“Personally you know when I look back on last season, I know I had a solid year but I just know there was a lot of plays I left out there on the field, a lot of sacks I left out there and I had to really dedicate myself this offseason working on my explosion, changing my eating habits a little bit so I can get leaner, faster and stronger, things like that” Carter said.
As one of the un-questioned veteran leaders of this Gators defense that many are anticipating to take a nice step forward, Carter was selected to the 2021 Pre-Season All-SEC 1st team defense which comes with high expectations. Boy did he not disappoint in week 1 against FAU.
After his performance week one, it seems like all of the hard work in the offseason paid off. Carter had 4 tackles, 3 sacks and 1 forced fumble leading him to be named SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the week. His increased explosion, flexibility and agility were on full display against the Owls where he routinely lived in the backfield. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had high praise for his stud pass-rusher’s performance and leadership following the Gators 35-14 victory over FAU.
“I think anytime you can get 3 sacks in a game, you’re gonna be raising your stock, I don’t care who you play. But the other things that show up is his ability to set the edge of the defense, his ability to be stout in the run game and then obviously when he’s 1 on 1 that’s a mismatch in our favor and that’s what you try to create every week, guys like him getting those 1 on 1’s” said Grantham. “Not only did he make plays and was productive, but he was a good teammate to other guys with his energy and his leadership helping coach some of the younger guys that we’re gonna need from a depth standpoint”
As sights are set on his week 2 homecoming in Tampa, Carter is excited to be back playing in front of his friends, family and hometown for the first time in a Gators uniform. “I'm excited to get out there, in front of the home crowd, you know. Got a lot of people trying to come support me so I'm just excited to get out there. My Mom sent me a list of 30, so I’ll tell you that off the bat. That’s not including the people that asked me. So if I can get 40, I’ll take it”
In what will assuredly be an emotional return for Carter, Saturday will be yet another opportunity for him to prove that he is amongst the conference and nation’s elite pass rushers.