'Freakish athlete' T.J. Slaton brings size, upside to Packers' defensive line

Rookie D-lineman made big changes during final year in Florida

DL T.J. Slaton

GREEN BAY – One of the first things David Turner did after reuniting with Dan Mullen in 2019 at the University of Florida was turn on film of his newest pupil: T.J. Slaton.

And not just the cutups from Slaton's first two seasons with the Gators. Turner even went back and watched Slaton's basketball tape from American Heritage High School, as well.

What the Gators' new defensive line coach saw was a nimble, athletic big man with good footwork and body control. The guy was active on the boards and could dunk, too.

"He's a freakish athlete for a guy his size," said Turner last week in an interview with packers.com. "As a D-line coach, I love these linemen who play basketball and I love to watch them play. Because you gotta handle the ball, and they develop different skill sets."

Turner, who previously coached with Mullen during two stints at Mississippi State, was brought to Gainesville to work with Slaton and the Gators' defensive linemen after Sal Sunseri accepted an assistant job at Alabama.

In more than 30 years as a college coach, Turner has worked with likes of Preston Smith, Fletcher Cox, Chris Jones, Patrick Kerney, Pernell McPhee, and Kingsley Keke (at Texas A&M). His newest pupil was Slaton, a colossus who played at 6-foot-5, 358 pounds during his junior season at Florida.

A four-star recruit who played for former Pro Bowler Patrick Surtain at American Heritage, Slaton brought lofty expectations when he committed to play for the Gators due to that otherworldly athleticism for a man of his size.

While Slaton had been a productive rotational lineman for Florida during his three seasons – 61 tackles and two sacks in 33 games – he had yet to become a full-fledged starter heading into his true senior year in 2020.

Turner, knowing Slaton aspired to play at the next level, presented him with a challenge last spring – increase the effort and work on his conditioning.

"I talked to him about it," Turner said. "I said, 'You ought to be able to play 35, 40 snaps easily.'

"Over time and having a chance to play some, he realized that it's hard to play and be effective at the weight that he was at. That's when he made the conscious decision, 'Hey, this is important. I gotta get my weight down.'"

While always a well-meaning and dedicated player who did everything the coaches asked of him, Slaton was more diligent about what he ate to improve his quickness and endurance.

Slaton reported back for his senior year around 330 and the difference was obvious to both him and the coaching staff.

"I've always been a pretty athletic guy; can jump, can run," Slaton said. "Losing weight was just getting my quickness and hand speed down. It's definitely worked for me. How I got it was definitely just changing how I eat; definitely cutting down on the portions of how I eat."

The other area Slaton made significant strides in was understanding technique and his responsibility on the defensive front. One message Turner continually preaches to his defensive linemen is how "we live in a different world. We have to do the same things over and over and over and over again."

Where receivers run the route tree and catch passes, Slaton's job was to anchor, take on double-teams and get off blocks. In the process, he flashed the short-area quickness that gained the attention of NFL scouts in the pre-draft process.

Having finally secured a starting spot, Slaton led all defensive linemen with a career-high 37 tackles, five QB pressures and 1½ sacks. What's more, his biggest performances (a team-best five tackles in a 44-28 win over Georgia and a career-high seven tackles in a 34-10 win over Kentucky) came when the SEC lights shined brightest.

"He's a guy who had all the physical tools," Turner said. "He just couldn't quite put it together but he started doing it really the last 1½ years for us. I could see the growth in him both on and off the field."

Slaton had the option to return for one more season at Florida due to the NCAA granting all players an additional year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 season, but he was ready to chase his NFL dream.

For that reason, Turner sees a lot of NFL upside with the 23-year-old Slaton, who reported for Packers rookie minicamp at 326 pounds with aspirations to get as low as 320.

Slaton said he's already talked with the Packers' strength and conditioning staff and nutritionists to map out a meal plan for him to perform at his optimum weight.

As far as his basketball background, Slaton says he "can still do everything" he did in his high school highlight reels. While his focus is solely on football, Slaton has taken a lot of lessons he learned on the basketball court with him into the trenches.

"Being 326, it's definitely easier to get over the rim now," said Slaton, smiling. "Right now, I'm just trying to stay focused on football and lock into this organization and definitely give them the things they want from me. I'm just trying to be the best I can be right now."

Take a look at Packers DL T.J. Slaton during his college career.

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