It was no surprise when the Florida Gators defensive line struggled last season after defensive tackle Dominique Easley, the star of the unit and a leader on the team, went down with a torn ACL during a late September practice.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp tried to fill in the gaps the best he could, but the Gators had issues stopping the run, getting to the quarterback or doing much of anything at times with their defensive front seven.
So while the offense is in the middle of an overhaul under new coordinator Kurt Roper, Muschamp and defensive line coach Brad Lawing are tweaking a unit that must make significant improvements if Florida is going to have substantial success in 2014.
Before the Gators could begin improving came the realization that they would have to do so without redshirt senior Leon Orr, who is not expected to be cleared until May 1 as he recovers from a fractured wrist he suffered last season.
Filling in for him on the interior is junior Jonathan Bullard, a defensive end who played some tackle in 2013 despite not actually having the desire to switch positions. Bullard admitted Tuesday that he was frustrated when Muschamp asked him to move inside because he had never played the position before and felt like his production would significantly decrease (which it ultimately did).
“With all the offseason, I’ve been working on it because I know we’re kind of light there right now,” he explained. “Now I kind of got the hang of it and I can read things better at defensive tackle like I could at end. Now it’s kind of even. To be honest, I’m actually trying to embrace it and enjoy it rather than last year not really wanting to but knowing I had to. Now I’m trying to embrace it and do it at a high level.”
His coach is is thrilled with what he’s seen from the third-year lineman.
“Right now, inside, Jon Bullard I think is playing his best football. He’s playing really well inside,” Muschamp said.
Bullard’s transition has opened up an opportunity at defensive end for redshirt sophomore Bryan Cox, Jr., who has also been impressing Muschamp with his tenacity, relentless effort and much-improved consistency.
“It’s clicked. [I'm] probably diving into my playbook more than usual. I made it a point to watch more film this spring and just try to be on my Ps and Qs,” Cox said.
“That’s always a good thing when you get on the field more. I’m just trying to push for some more playing time. Obviously I want to start, that’s the main goal, but if I don’t, I want to definitely push for some more playing time. I think I’m heading in the right direction to get some more playing time on the field by how I’ve been playing this spring.”
Now inside with a different perspective, Bullard can see for himself how well Cox is performing on a day-to-day basis.
“He’s working hard. He has a motor, so he’s constantly running,” Bullard said. “Effort will get you a long ways right now. He’s doing what they ask him to do, and with me bumping inside, we need somebody to do that and he’s been the guy.”
Bullard is not the only Gators player stepping up at tackle and earning high marks from Muschamp. Lining up next to him is senior Darious Cummings, who saw plenty of action as a junior college transfer but will now be counted on as potential starter next to Orr when the injured lineman gets back healthy.
Aside from Bullard and Cummings is a trio of second-year players in redshirt freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles, all of whom Muschamp expects to see more from as spring practice progresses.
“We need the young guys to keep coming. We need to get those guys a bunch of snaps and let them play. We do some good things at times, we’re just very inconsistent. … The drop down is way too big. There’s too much separation between the groups.”
“Those guys need, they just need to go head-butting, every single day over and over and over again and get off blocks and just understand the tempo. It’s hard for big guys on both lines of scrimmage to understand the tempo you got to play with.
“The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging for blocks because they’ve been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven’t had to disengage from blocks. A lot of times, the guy blocking them wasn’t good enough to get a hat on them. Well, now you got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for our guys.”
One potential catalyst for these young linemen is junior Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr., who earned praise from both Cox and Cummings as someone who has stepped up as a tremendous vocal leader for Florida, juxtaposing a number of other players who are quieter and prefer to lead purely by example.
“He always gives us a little bit of energy when he comes over,” Cox said. “Whenever he’s out there, he always has some type of energy around him where we just all connect to it.”
Cummings put it another way.
“It’s kind of stared to become freakish. He’s a hell of an athlete,” he said of Fowler. “If he’s on and everybody else is on, too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. And that will help everybody else out, the linebackers and secondary.”