Bullard settling in at defensive tackle

It was easy to sense Jonathan Bullard's frustration last season. After Dominique Easley was lost for the year to an ACL injury, the Florida coaches told Bullard they wanted him to move inside to defensive tackle. Their request was met with hesitation. Bullard had never played defensive tackle before and the challenges of the position made him want to avoid it if possible.

After multiple conversations with Will Muschamp and defensive line coach Brad Lawing, Bullard gave into the request. He wanted to do what helped his team the most, but the hesitation remained. As a sophomore in the SEC, he wasn't sure if he had the strength or familiarity with the spot to make an impact.

The questions swirled in his head. What would a double team feel like from two 320-pound interior linemen on an SEC opponent? Was he strong enough? Did he need to add weight? The hesitation remained as Bullard started playing defensive tackle last season.

"I didn't really have the feel for it," Jonathan Bullard said.

In high school, Bullard didn't have to worry about much. He'd line up on the edge, use speed or power to get around the offensive tackle and make plays. That's what earned him scholarship offers from most teams in the southeast, allowing him to pick which college team he would play for.

That's what made the move frustrating. Bullard chose Florida because of the fit in the defense as a defensive end. Moving inside was never in his plans, and he was upset about it at first.

"I never did it, it was hard for me," he said. "At the end spot, you don't take on a lot of double teams, and if you do, one of them is a tight end which we should manhandle anyway, so it's not as bad as taking on two 300-pounders. I wasn't as productive as I expected myself to be because it was different. Moving in there is different techniques than end. I hadn't done it ever."

When he got to Florida, he made an impact as a freshman because of his ability and the knowledge of the defense. He knew the plays, which helped him at defensive tackle, but he never focused on the intricacies of the position until last season.

Then he realized the positive sides. Not only would the move help his team and make the Florida defense better, it also sets Bullard up for more success in the future. NFL teams always value defensive linemen that can handle multiple positions, giving them extra roster flexibility.

"If you know how to do something, you can do it full speed," Bullard said. "You second guess yourself at something you haven't done, you're not moving as fast as you can. If you're thinking too much (at defensive tackle), the ball is snapped and you've got a 300-pounder in front of you. You ain't got time to think."

As his sophomore season went on, he got accustomed to what was expected from him at defensive tackle. He still split reps between there and defensive end -- he's playing on defensive tackle this spring -- which slowed his learning curve more than most.

When last season ended, Bullard didn't take time off. He started to get in his playbook more, knowing that he'd have an opportunity in the spring to assert himself and earn more playing time at the position his team needs him the most. With Leon Orr out for the spring with a wrist injury, Darious Cummings and Bullard return as the two defensive tackles with the most experience on the team.

His dedication to the playbook has paid off, and he's turning the heads of the coaches this spring.

"Jon Bullard, I think he's playing his best football," Muschamp said. "He's playing really well inside."

Bullard was able to find some veterans to lean on through the transition. Early in their careers, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd played out of position in the Florida defense. Easley came to Florida as a defensive tackle but spent one season as a defensive end. The same happened to Floyd.

Neither of the players enjoyed the year out of position, but it was what the team needed and gave them the best chance to win. That's the message from Easley to Bullard this spring.

"He just told me to embrace it, work hard," Bullard said. "I figured most could tell it wasn't something I wanted to do, but now, I want to do it because I feel good with it. It wasn't that I was against it, but I knew I wasn't going to be as comfortable as I could. Now that I'm practicing it, I kind of enjoy it."

The transition has caught the eye of the Florida offensive linemen. Trenton Brown, one of Bullard's close friends, spent the fall facing him in practice during his time at defensive end, but he thinks the move could end up in Florida's favor. Bullard's time at defensive end means he has the speed off the edge, and it's rare for a defensive tackle to have that explosiveness off the ball.

"I think he's doing great," Brown said. "In my opinion, I think he's doing better inside than (at defensive end) because he's quick off the ball, got moves and strength, and he has low pad level."

The most important part for Bullard is that the position now feels natural. Last season, his mind was rolling through different things that could happen before the ball was snapped. Now, he's comfortable enough to let his instincts take over and trust what will happen on the field.

"I've got it down," Bullard said. "As it went on, it was hard. At the end of the season, I got more comfortable. Now that spring ball is here and I'm repping it, taking on a double team, I know what to expect and how to handle it."


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