Florida DL Jonathan Bullard’s sacrifices, team-first mindset paying off for himself, Gators

By Adam Silverstein
November 13, 2014

For most teams, the sudden departure of a redshirt senior defensive lineman would prove to be a major blow, but the Florida Gators have been operating most of the season without Leon Orr in the starting lineup – and likely have been better because of it.

In fact, the 2014 Gators are head coach Will Muschamp’s best pass rushing team, due in large part to the pressure Florida is getting up the middle with junior Jonathan Bullard and senior Darious Cummings.

The Gators already have 12 more quarterback hurries through eight games in 2014* than they have in any full season under Muschamp. Florida is also averaging more sacks per game than ever before and is on pace to finish with 32.5, the most under Muschamp (assuming a bowl game, like UF played in 2012).

Cummings, the starting nose tackle, has made a major impact with two sacks and four hurries. However, it is Bullard, with just half a sack but seven total hurries, that has blossomed in the middle for the Gators.

A 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end, Bullard was a five-star recruit out of high school and the No. 6 overall player in the class of 2012. He came to Florida to be a pass-rushing end, not run-stopping tackle, but has thrived in the latter role when asked to play it.

Bullard has been candid throughout his career with the Gators, saying quite matter-of-factly that he was disappointed when asked to play a hybrid role but nevertheless happy to do whatever was necessary to help Florida win football games.

“I’m not going to say I enjoy it, but it is what I got to do. For the time being, it’s what we need, so I got to step in and do the best I can,” he said 13 months ago. “I wouldn’t really say it’s much of a drag. It’s just something I’m not used to doing. I haven’t ever did it before, so of course I don’t feel as comfortable inside as I do outside. … After I get the hang of it and get used to it, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

The versatility was only supposed to come into play on an as-needed basis last season, but Dominique Easley suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2013 forced Bullard into the interior on a more permanent basis. He had no choice but to make the adjustment.

“Every week, guys have different roles, and you’re talking to them about those roles are. One week, you may be thrilled with your role, and the next week it may be lesser or different than what it was [the week prior]. Now it has to be sold to you as to why we need you to do this for the team,” explained defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin on Wednesday.

“[The team has] done a great job of buying into the team concept of understanding every guy has a role. Whether you’re thrilled about it or not, you need to go do it to the best of your ability because that’s what the team needs you to do. Our guys have done that. That’s something I’m very proud of our defense about – we’ve made adjustments throughout the year and changed those roles and guys have done a good job with it.”

This offseason, Bullard returned to spending most of practice at his more natural position of defensive end. That is until the coaches realized that his speed and athleticism could be a boon for Florida on the interior, allowing the Gators to move Cummings over to nose and put Orr in a reserve role with Bullard a starter at defensive tackle.

With Cummings suspended, Bullard started the season opener at nose, while Orr lined up next to him. The next week, Bullard was moved over with Cummings back at nose. Over the next five games (prior to Orr’s departure), Bullard started four. The success in his new role has not only made it more palatable; Bullard now sees it as a long-term benefit.

“Jon’s fine with it. He’s an ultimate team guy. Obviously there was [a struggle before]. It wasn’t like he was thrilled about it early on. You had to talk to him about it. But he was always willing to do it, do what the team needed. I think now he’s starting to enjoy it. In fact, I know he is. He has said that,” Durkin said.

“I think he’s got a great future whether it be at end or tackle. … I think either way [he ends up, playing both positions] makes you a better player. Any time you can show versatility and show that you can do more than one thing, that just helps you and makes you a better player and prepares you better for your future.”

Muschamp noted on Monday that he’s had numerous long conversations with Bullard about working on the inside of the line and that while it may not be the player’s ideal scenario, it would be of great benefit to the team and also help Bullard long term.

“When you’re able to play multiple positions, you really help yourself as a player. From the standpoint of moving forward in his career, it’s a great move for him because they’ve seen the three-technique, they’ve seen him play in the A gap, they’ve seen him play a four-technique, heads-up [against] the tackle, all the way outside to a nine-technique outside the tight end,” Muschamp explained.

“The worst thing an NFL team wants to do is project, wonder if you can do it. They don’t want to do that because they’ve got to justify to their owner why [the player] couldn’t do it when they drafted you. So they want to be able to see you on tape [doing] those things. … Then they don’t have to make projections off of that. This is coming from a lot of NFL people.”

An NFL person himself, Muschamp spent a year as defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban and remains in close contact with a number of coaches throughout the league. In fact, three separate Muschamp defensive linemen have been drafted due in large part to their versatility – Jaye Howard by Seattle in 2012 (on the suggestion of Dan Quinn, a then-former Seahawks defensive line coach), Sharrif Floyd by Minnesota in 2013 and Dominique Easley by New England in 2014. All three players saw time at Florida both as tackles and ends.

Muschamp likely conveyed that – plus how versatility led to Jaylen Watkins being drafted earlier than projected in 2014 – to Bullard throughout the last two offseasons. To his credit, the player understood his coach and trusted that he had both the team’s and Bullard’s best interest in mind. The result is a more varied skill set for the player and the most productive pass rush that the Gators have seen in Muschamp’s four years.

“As a player, you mature. … [You] start to really get into the business side of things and look at things from a business standpoint, ‘You know what Coach, you’re probably right. You’ve been doing this a long time,’” said Muschamp of Bullard.

“It’s no different than Jaylen Watkins. Jaylen Watkins got drafted in the fourth round. Number one, because he played well. Number two, because he’s a good person and a good guy. Number three, because he could player corner, he could play nickel, he could play dime, he could play safety. He gave positional variety, also played special teams. When they look at that spreadsheet, you’re justifying to the owner … [that] he’s on the field 38 percent of the time because he’s playing defense and special teams. He’s also able to be your emergency safety, nickel, dime or corner depending on the other position he’s playing. And he’s really smart.

“All it does is help you. There’s no drawback being able to do something like that to help you and your career and our football team. So you explain those things to them, and they understand it. That’s how he’s handled it. He’s played extremely well. He played his best game against Georgia last week and played solid the other night [against Vanderbilt]. But he’s continued to improve and get better and better.”

Unselfishness from players like Bullard is what has helped turn Florida around from a team that appeared to be on its last legs to one that is surging for a last gasp hope at winning the SEC East.

The Gators may not attain that level of success this season, but players like Bullard will see their hard work pay off one way or another because character, work ethic and talent always win out in the end.

Photo Credit: Seth Butler/The Newport Plain Talk

19 Comments

  1. Dave Massey says:

    Hey Leon,
    Read and learn how it’s supposed to be done. There is no I in team.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Yeah yeah, we get it. Bullard good. Orr bad. Somehow, though, I still don’t believe it’s as simple or cut and dry as some of you are making it out to be. Still not sold that Orr’s situation was handled the way it should have been handled.

      And this whole “he’s 22, he’s a 5th year senior, he’s a man” thing is laughable. Just because countries let kids fight and die for them at 18 doesn’t make them men. Maybe some of you really had your s–t together so perfectly at that age, but for most of us males, growing up, becoming a man, was a process that was always ongoing and for sure took longer than 22 years to achieve.

      Leon Orr could have used some mentoring. I don’t believe the whole thing had to blow up the way it blew up. Leon was wrong, for sure, but a coach and an institution needs to think long and hard before it kicks a kid and a career to the curb like that.

      And before you tell me that “Leon brought it on himself,” I already said he did wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the situation couldn’t have been handled better.

      • senuod says:

        It could have been handled better, but Muschamp gave him an indication of how serious the transgression would be and Orr took the road anyways. Muschamp doesn’t really have an option but to keep his word.

        If anything, Muschamp could let him back on the team to exercise and prepare for the draft, but there’s no point in letting him play. If you take away the fact that this is his last season and these are the last 3 games, a 3 game suspension for “abandoning” the team doesn’t sound too harsh to me. If you take his last season, and last 3 games into consideration, then you’re making a point to the other players that Orr’s situation gives him leeway to act a certain way.

        A lot of these kids are in the exact same boat as Orr, but they haven’t made this same transgression. With this example, I’m sure they won’t put themselves in that situation.

        • Michael Jones says:

          I appreciate your response and I understand where you’re coming from, particularly once everybody–including Muschamp–painted their way into a corner. My deal is that you’ve got a kid making a call like that, you bring him into your room or your office or wherever, you have a talk with him, you calm him down, you let him know how important he is to the team, you try to make him understand the situation including the unacceptability of giving you ultimatums and the long term potential consequences of his actions if he intends to go through with it . . . you work your way through it with the player to whom you’ve been entrusted or at least you give it your best shot.

          My deal is that a lot of stuff has to happen and you have to go through those steps before you’re dropping an emotional and distraught kid off at a Greyhound bus station in Nashville, for pete’s sake. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

          • mjGator says:

            You are absolutely correct, Mike Jones. I believe wholeheartedly that Orr was reaching out to his coach and this whole situation could have been managed without incident if Muschamp had the maturity and inclination to do so. This young man needed guidance, needed mentoring, needed some compassion and reassurance at a time when he was acting emotionally and irrationally. In my judgment, this just further demonstrates why Muschamp isn’t the right man for this job. If Orr truly respected his coach, this situation would have never escalated to where it is now.

            • Dave Massey says:

              Ah, sitting here tailgating with Gator fans on game day enjoying this beautiful day in Gainesville. And getting a good laugh at you guys who are trying to make Orr out to be the victim and Muschamp an ogre. Absurd. Maybe Muschamp should get the team together on Sunday night and sit around a campfire and sing kumbaya or maybe play duck, duck, goose. Those are kid’s games. Football at the University of Florida is not.

              You guys are making a bunch of assumptions about what really happened and how much was discussed. You say he should have sat him down and discussed it and made him aware of everything and the consequences. How do you know that didn’t happen? Sounds like Muschamp was pretty clear on the consequences. If you leave the team right here, right now, you are done at Florida. This was not the first problem Orr has had in his time with the Gators. He has had a couple of arrests. Three strikes and you’re out a la Jenkins. How do you expect a guy to be handled that basically says, “I don’t care about the team, start me or I quit so I can go make money playing football”. Too bad he values his degree so lowly.

              And I’m tired of hearing this crap about how he’s a kid. When I was 22 and got my degree in four years I was a commissioned officer in the USAF. my level of maturity was far higher than it was when I was an eighteen year old freshman. I don’t see why football players should be held to a lower standard than the rest of us. Does that mean he should be fully mature? No, but more should be expected than this. He’s about to find out about the real world because come December he is out in it. No time like the present to grow up. Juniors and seniors are expected to be examples to the underclass men. This guy is an example of what you don’t want to be. I think part of the problem is Orr’s ego at not being the starter. How dare coach start someone that is outperforming him.

              And trying to play the sympathy card with the dropping off at the bus station comment is ridiculous. He could have told Muschamp that he requested not to play and rode back with the rest of the team on the plane. What did you expect Muschamp to do, charter a plane for him and hire a limo to take. Him to the airport? Or chose to ride the dog. Then Orr takes or social media and proceeds to take a swipe at Muschamp, really showing contrition there.

              Let’s go whip some Cocks asses and show Spurrier how it’s done. By the way, do you think Spurrier would have tolerated this guy antics? You know he doesn’t and wouldn’t. He would just say its time for somebody else to get in there and perform.

          • senuod says:

            Understood, and I think everything you said makes perfect sense and would have been the right way to handle it if Orr had come to Muschamp at a better time. I think Orr confronted the coach at the worst possible time and with the worst possible ultimatum.

  2. 305Gator says:

    Good job in showing the contrast between Bullard and Orr. Safe to say the Bullard will be playing on Sundays, but can’t say the same for Orr.
    Now how in the world was such a lousy recruiter as WM able to get Bullard to come to Florida?
    Must be one of those lone exceptions or flukes, similar to VH3 and Tabor.
    Cause apparently we are so far behind in recruiting as they say around here.
    Go Gators!

    • SW FL Joe says:

      Now how in the world was such a lousy recruiter as WM able to get Bullard to come to Florida?

      Easy, Dan Quinn and Bryant Young

      • 305Gator says:

        Right. By the same reasoning VH3 and Tabor were nabbed by Travaris Johnson. D Rob came in because of Pease. Harris because of Roper. All the while WM is standing there with his thumb up his arse doing nothing.
        Is that how it works at UF?

    • Michael Jones says:

      I got a hundo that says they’ll both be playing on Sundays. (in an abundance of caution, the “hundo” reference was figuratively speaking and for entertainment purposes only. . I am not trying to solicit a bet on OGGOA)

      The way we pile on Gator players like a pack of dogs–whether it’s Driskel, Orr, whoever–blows me away.

  3. TheRealCaruso says:

    Adam,

    Great article! And really appreciate your hard work. Is “scarifies” meant in the title? or is it supposed to be “sacrifices”?

  4. W2 says:

    Great Read

  5. Michael J. says:

    It made sense to move inside because Bullard was not a good defensive end. He is an improved player on the inside and is much better than Orr. He was a five star bust coming into this year, now he’s become a productive player. Hopefully he’ll come back for his Senior season. One good thing the NFL has done to curb the rash of players declaring early that should stay in school is change the draft ranking report. Now players will only be told if they are projected to go in the first two rounds, and advised to stay in school otherwise. Fowler is the only player on Florida that I feel is going to receive that type of projection. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone will listen and stay in school. There’s no shortage of players who have inflated opinions of their abilities and will go against the advice. just hope it happens to a lesser degree than last year when many players that came out were not even drafted. It is a proven fact that the higher you are drafted, the chance of you getting more than a cup of coffee in the NFL increase exponentially, along with your earnings. The smart move is, always, to stay in school if you are not a high draft pick. Sadly, a lot of players aren’t very smart.

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