The buzz around Florida football is that a first-round pick lives on its defensive front, and he wears No. 99.
Tyrie Cleveland’s pupils darted over the heads of about a dozen reporters who were fashioned…
Sophomore defensive lineman T.J. Slaton said without a doubt Jachai Polite is a first rounder, and sophomore linebacker Rayshad Jackson said the Ormond Beach, Florida, native is having a “first-round season.”
He has sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times, tied for the nation’s 17th-largest collection, and he has forced four fumbles. Polite registered all of his sacks in the five games sandwiched between defeats from No. 11 Kentucky and No. 5 Georgia. He helped propel the Gators to wins in those contests, including one over then-No. 9 LSU.
While the motivation to take the head off the other team’s quarterback may be all a tenacious pass rusher needs, Polite’s got much more fueling him. His dream is to sign an NFL contract lucrative enough so his mother won’t have to work another day in her life.
Katrina Simmons, 38, works as the supervisor of housekeepers at a hotel in Daytona Beach. She’s also a licensed hairdresser when she’s not working at the beachside tourist stay. She styles hair from her house, where loyal customers come and go almost every night according to her younger brother, Lawrence Martin IV, who lives in Tampa. He’s Jachai’s uncle, but they’re more like brothers. He was 7 years old when Katrina had Jachai, the oldest of her five children. He also played two seasons at South Florida and a little bit of pro ball in the Canadian Football League and Arena Football League.
“It’s kind of frustrating for me,” Martin said. “When I come home and want to see her she’s like, ‘You can come over,’ but she’s got people sitting in her house.”
Simmons is known around the Florida football program as the mother of Jachai Polite and a soon-to-be retiree. She frequents his games, and it’s safe to say she has passed a great work ethic onto Jachai. His Twitter handle is @RetireMoms. And even though she’s the type of woman who loves and wants to work, her son wants to make sure she never has to.
“My mom, she’s believed in me since I came out of her,” he said.
The 6-foot-2 Polite fills out his muscular frame with a listed weight of 242 pounds. Some might say he’s a little on the lighter side for a defensive end. But Polite had a productive offseason considering he entered UF weighing 271 pounds and tipped the scales at 260 last season. That’s a pretty impressive fat-shed for a guy who didn’t carry around much of the squishy molecules to begin with.
The junior hasn’t just shown hard work in the weight room. He has translated it to the practice field.
The “Juice Guy” during UF’s first fall camp under coach Dan Mullen was awarded each day to the player who brought the most energy to practice and was unrelenting in his charged-up attitude. Polite won this award the most.
Slaton remembered one instance in practice where the edge rusher’s always-play-to-the-whistle spirit was exemplified.
“We was on the far hash, and he was on the outside,” Slaton said. “(It was) one of the pass plays (where) the quarterback rolled all the way out. He chased him all the way from the other side of the field and made the sack.”
Plays like these are what Polite has become famous for. One in particular against Tennessee in 2017 got him national notoriety. He caught UT running back John Kelly 25 yards up the field after tracking him down the sideline. Polite was fooled in the backfield by a screen pass, but he didn’t let the mistake stop him from making the tackle.
Martin posted a video of the play on Twitter with the caption “plays like this is why 99 will be playing on Sundays.” Martin shot the video with his phone while watching the game at home. It currently has 2.37 million views, and it ruined Twitter for him.
“I just posted it for, just I was happy he was hustling to the ball,” Martin said. “It went crazy. I had to cut the notifications off my phone.”
First-and-10, 28 yards from the end zone. LSU had the ball with a 7-0 lead over Florida in The Swamp, and it was driving down the field with a boatload of momentum and the opportunity to go up by two possessions in the first quarter.
Florida cornerback CJ Henderson came off his position in the secondary to rush Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow as he dropped back to pass. Henderson, one of the fastest players on the team, blew past the LSU left tackle and lifted his head to look at what he thought would be a vulnerable Burrow. But the quarterback was already smothered, and the ball was knocked out of his grasp.
It only took a couple of steps for Polite to beat left guard Adrian Magee. The offensive lineman hopelessly tried to put off the quarterback-hungry pass rusher with a sideways shove, but the balance and forward momentum of Polite allowed him to remain fixed on his trajectory. He left his feet, wrapped himself around Burrow like a boa constrictor and jarred the ball loose. Florida recovered it, and LSU never fully regained its confidence.
Polite did to Henderson something that happens a lot on UF defensive plays: he beat blitzing defensive backs and linebackers to the quarterback.
“If you want to get to a sack, you better get there faster than him,” safety Donovan Stiner said.
Henderson admitted that was the result on the sack-fumble against LSU.
“It could have been my sack,” he said, “but I’m not stingy, not selfish. I’m happy.”
Hard work is one quality, but combine it with Polite’s insane athletic ability and you have something special. It’s hard to compare another player to him as a reference point. He was a basketball player before starring on Mainland High School’s football team — the same program that produced Pro Bowl defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
He started playing football at 9 years old for the Ormond Beach Sandcrabs, a Pop Warner team, but he didn’t take football all too seriously. He took a couple of years off before returning to the sport in eighth grade.
Basketball was his first love. He played at Mainland with an aggressive style, driving straight to the hoop and drawing contact rather than settling for jumpers. His physical football-self showed up on the court.
Polite’s family calls him J.D., standing for his first and middle name, Jachai Da’quan, but he liked to think of it as a reference to Kevin Durant. He kept his work ethic focused on basketball until his junior year of high school when he was playing anywhere from defensive line to punter to quarterback on trick plays. He heaved a reverse pass on one for a 15-yard touchdown.
“It looked like a duck to me in the stands,” Martin said, “but he said it was a spiral.”
Polite was recruited to Florida by Jim McElwain. He had the luxury of surrounding himself with top-end talent like Caleb Brantley and Taven Bryan, especially because he started out as an interior defensive lineman. Bryan taught him workouts and drills to help his ankle flexibility, and Polite credits those exercises for his ability to bend underneath and around pass protectors.
He’s called a first-round talent because of his bend and quickness, and he has played with talent of equal caliber. But the names some have compared him to are the cream of the crop of pass rushers.
Junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said he has traits similar to Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Martin said he plays more like Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, though he struggled to find a comparable player with the speed and get-off relative to Polite. When Martin thought all the way back to his time as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, a freshman player by the name of Dwight Freeney came to mind. And Mullen knows all about the speed of Freeney. He played offensive tackle against him during practice drills.
But if you ask Polite who he compares himself to, he’d tell you there’s nobody living or dead he can think of. What’s so different about your game, Jachai?
“That I’m Jachai,” he said. “And just... I don’t know, I think I’m different. I know I’m different.”
The future for Polite is unclear but bright. His potential is a supernova, dazzling scouts yet unpredictable.
Three games and a bowl invitation await Polite and his teammates. Who’s to say what the ceiling is for his contributions over the remainder of the season? Opponents like Idaho and Florida State — which arguably possesses college football’s worst offensive line — present an opportunity for the junior standout, especially if he wants to add to his already impressive NFL Draft tape.
Either decision Polite elects to make — whether if it’s to shorten his college career and declare for the draft or to stay for his senior season — will be an understandable choice.
The scary thing is there’s still much room for improvement. He’s got the ability to beat the opposing offensive tackle on any given play, but his coaches think if he can put on more muscle, he’ll become more durable and able to terrorize offensive tackles over greater stretches.
But he’s close. And an offseason preparing for another SEC gauntlet or the NFL Combine should help him reach that benchmark.
“I think one of the big steps for him moving forward that we constantly talk about is being a three-down player, not a one-down player,” Mullen said. “I think he’s starting to understand that. You see him work, and I think he takes pride in that.”
Mark Stine is sports writer with The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @mstinejr or contact him at [email protected].