Bullard, Gators expect to be strong again defensively

Bullard, Gators expect to be strong again defensively

July 22nd, 2015 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard has 22 career starts and 112 career tackles entering his senior season with the Gators.

Photo by Jay Metz

Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard has been a disruptive menace the past three seasons, when the Gators have averaged ranking ninth nationally in yards allowed per game.

The Gators have not been so lethal offensively, ranking 104th on average nationally the past three years.

"It gets frustrating at times," Bullard said last week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "Sometimes you may say something in the heat of the moment that you don't mean, but at the end of the day, you just want to encourage them. They're practicing in the heat just like you are, and they don't go out there wanting to do bad.

"I can't say it's not frustrating, but you've got to realize that they're practicing hard like we are."

Florida's offense, which was such a juggernaut under coach Steve Spurrier in the 1990s and for most of the Urban Meyer era, struggled in Meyer's last season and throughout Will Muschamp's four years as coach. Muschamp was let go after a 6-5 regular season — the Gators had a potential opening rout of Idaho scratched by lightning — and was replaced in December by Colorado State coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.

Florida

Last season: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

Opener: Sept. 5 vs. New Mexico State (7:30 p.m. on SEC Network)

Fun fact: The Gators are 21-19 in SEC games the past five seasons after going 32-8 the previous five seasons.

Coming Thursday

Georgia

McElwain has receiver Demarcus Robinson and running back Kelvin Taylor back, but there is inexperience at quarterback and the possibility that the offensive line will have five new starters if guard Trip Thurman can't overcome a nagging shoulder injury.

That makes for quite an opening challenge, but seven defensive starters return. Bullard and Bryan Cox give Florida a formidable tandem at end, while linebacker Antonio Morrison will bid for All-SEC status and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III shouldl contend for All-America honors.

"They did an outstanding job on defense last season, no doubt about it," McElwain said, "and we have a lot of guys returning with experience. We're going to have to lean on them, and yet it's up to the offense to kind of take some of the heat off of them as well. It goes hand in hand."

Bullard enters his senior season having amassed 112 tackles and 16 tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3, 277-pounder from Shelby, N.C., was at his best against Florida's biggest rivals last season, totaling 2.5 tackles for loss against Georgia and two against Florida State.

Once Rivals.com's No. 6 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class, Bullard has been used in various roles up front and expects to again under new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.

"I'm comfortable playing wherever now, but I wouldn't have said that a year and a half ago," Bullard said. "I've learned all the positions, and wherever they put me I will make the most out of it. I know defensive tackle and I know defensive end, and in the Birmingham Bowl I even played some noseguard.

"I think I'm more effective on the edge on first and second down, and there is not a tight end who is going to block me. I can set the edge, and inside I've got a good twitch. I'm not the fastest, but my twitch is pretty good."

What was so mystifying about the Gators last season was how delightful or dreadful they could perform on a given day.

In a mid-October home game against Missouri, the Gators turned the ball over six times and fell behind 42-0 in an eventual 42-13 loss. Yet following an open date, Taylor rushed for 197 yards and Matt Jones added 192 in a 38-20 surprise thumping of Georgia.

"We were just running it and doing what we wanted," Bullard said of the win in Jacksonville. "We were like, 'Where did this come from?'"

Bullard still keeps in touch with Muschamp, who is now Auburn's defensive coordinator, but will an offensive-minded head coach lead to new results on the practice fields and in the games? Or will Bullard still get frustrated on occasion and potentially say something he later regrets?

"We try to make it hard on them," Bullard said. "We know we're good on defense, and if they can do it against us, they should be able to do it against whoever else we play."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.