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