GAINESVILLE — Whenever Zachary Carter was unsure about moving away from defensive end during his Florida Gators tenure, he heard the same advice from then-position coach David Turner.
Being flexible is only going to work out for you in the long run.
“I listened to him,” Carter said.
And because he listened, Carter is days away from realizing his NFL dream.
Carter arrived at UF from Hillsborough High as a four-star defensive end. His first starts came at end, too, and his 4½ sacks and 7 tackles for loss were second on the team in 2019.
But in 2020, UF’s needs changed. The Gators were thin on the interior line. Carter’s 6-foot-4, 290-pound frame could handle the challenge.
He slid to tackle and started the first three games there. He continued to play inside and outside (depending on the situation) over his final two seasons. His highlights show success all along the line. Carter blew past Vanderbilt’s center for one sack. Lined up at end against Alabama in the 2020 SEC championship, he beat projected top-five pick Evan Neal for another stop.
Carter’s versatility didn’t lead to eye-popping statistics. Over 46 games, he compiled 27 tackles for loss and 17½ sacks. But NFL teams acknowledge and appreciate the way UF plugged him into different positions. When he talked to the Bills last month, they told him they envisioned lining him up at end on the first two downs and pushing him inside on third down.
“They see me as a puzzle piece to move around,” Carter said.
Carter has learned to embrace that role. He’s keeping his weight around 285 pounds (his playing weight from last season) and, as of last month’s pro day, had dropped his body fat percentage from 25 to 18. He’s cross-training at defensive end and interior lineman so he’s “ready for whatever situation” he enters in the league.
Expect an answer to that on Saturday. Carter is ranked anywhere from the draft’s No. 123 overall prospect (ESPN’s Matt Miller) to No. 220 (Dan Brugler of The Athletic). Though he might sneak into the third round, he’s more likely to be a Day 3 pick.
“They’re going to get a leader, a dog, someone who’s going to go in every day, give it their all,” said running back Malik Davis, a UF teammate who grew up with Carter in Tampa.
Carter showed that last season. He considered turning pro but stayed at UF because he had more to prove.
The team success did not live up to Carter’s expectations, but he still made an impact and noticeable improvement. He earned his degree in December and displayed enough on the field to earn an invite to the scouting combine.
“I just wanted to show that I was a complete player,” Carter said. “I can stop the run. I can rush the passer, and I wanted to lead my team. I came back and ended up being team captain for the first time. That felt good.”
So, too, will the feeling this week when Carter hears his name called as an NFL draft pick — at whatever position he ends up playing.
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