2014's Easley is junior Dante Fowler. If Fowler goes down it will change the complexion of the defense in a huge way.
Fowler was so dominant in the off-season and early drills that he sat out a lot of the spring so that the offense could get some things done. He showed quite a bit of progress as a sophomore in 2013. Last year he was 5th on the team in tackles with 50 (highest among defensive linemen), first with 10.5 tackles for loss, second with 3.5 sacks, second with seven quarterback hurries and he led the team with three forced fumbles.
A year ago Fowler could come out of the game for a breather and Ronald Powell could slide into the BUCK position and was pretty successful there. In 2014, they are going to have to rely on sophomore Alex McCalister and a couple of linebackers to come in and perform. The best possible scenario would have McCalister ready to go.
Limited to three tackles a year ago, much more is expected of McCalister after a slow start to spring turned into a very positive finish. He is slowly adding weight to his frame and a better attitude has made him a player that is steadily getting better overall. A Jarvis Moss type going 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds, McCalister has a quick first step and excellent athleticism off the edge.
The only other player considered a BUCK would be red-shirt freshman Jordan Sherit. Sherit spent last year recovering from a high school knee injury. He dislocated his elbow early in spring drills but came back pretty strong. Quick off the edge, we have a lot to learn about Sherit and what he is capable of.
On the opposite edge it was supposed to be junior Jonathan Bullard, but the staff had different plans for Bullard even before the start of spring drills. He was moved inside for the most part knowing that he could play outside if necessary.
That left sophomore Bryan Cox as the main player at defensive end and Cox did all he could to impress the coaches this spring and get the positive nod from the for his overall play. Cox played well a year ago, he was active and aggressive on the field. However, for whatever reason his actions didn't amount to much as far as statistics at the end of the year. Despite playing a good amount and in eight different games, Cox finished with just five tackles and two sacks to complete his stat line for the year.
The staff saw enough of him to know that his play went beyond stats and he rewarded their thoughts on him this spring with his good play that allowed them to push Bullard inside for most of the spring. It is time to turn that positive play into game time readiness.
Knowing Bullard can and will play the position some leaves a little bit of relief, but behind Cox there are mainly two players and with very little experience, at least until freshman Gerald Willis shows up. Joey Ivie would be one, but Ivie saw a lot of time inside at tackle as well. Ivie has a great motor and was able to get on the field as a true freshman last season. Still he has gotten most of his work inside, so to count on him at the defensive end position is a little bit of a stretch.
The other player that showed some great signs in the spring but will have a lot of work still to do is true freshman Taven Bryan. Bryan is a freak at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds that can run and jump with the best of them. He also has a high motor, but is coming from playing high school football in Wyoming, so the SEC will be quite a different speed for him. Both Ivie and Bryan are physically ready to play, and that is a bonus. So is 5-star Willis when he arrives.
The defensive tackle rotation was helped a great deal with the move of Bullard to the 3-technique. Much like Easley moved inside form playing outside, Bullard has elite speed and quickness that make it tough on guards to play against him. He finished eighth on the team in tackles a year ago with 33, finished with 2.5 sacks, and third on the team with four quarterback hurries. He has had his best practice time as a Gator playing on the inside and they would like to keep him there as much as possible.
Darious Cummings is also playing better at NOSE TACKLE than anyone did at all a year ago. The senior played okay in his first year after transferring from junior college, but has had a really nice spring even after missing some of spring due to family issues. Cummings started six of the 11 games he played in last year and finished with 15 tackles and two tackles for loss. He is a play maker at a position where they don't need a play maker, but someone to eat up linemen and let others make a play.
Senior Leon Orr missed all of spring with a wrist injury and will be counted on and pushing for a starting spot. As a junior he finished with 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss. 2.5 sacks and a couple of fumble recoveries. At minimum he provides another capable body inside, at maximum he is a solid SEC lineman.
As mentioned before sophomore Joey Ivie spent most of his time inside and is expected to play there in the fall. Ivie was the only true freshman to play on the defensive line last year and it was because he caught on quick and because of his relentless motor to the ball. While he improved in the spring, he didn't show up a lot.
Beyond that, the Gators are looking at total inexperience inside. Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley are both red-shirt freshmen that have shown flashes of good play and total lack of consistency this spring. They can make plays with the big guys, but they can't keep up with the tempo every play like the older guys. Both of them will be counted on to play with Bostwick playing more of the 3-technique and Brantley backing up at the NOSE.
Two more freshmen will arrive in June and may be able to also help. Khairi Clark is a big time prospect and may be able to supply some minutes at the NOSE. At 320 pounds or so, he has the size to play right away. Thomas Holley is more of a quicker 3-technique, he is physically ready to play but with only two years of football behind him, he may be a little farther behind.
In the end, this defensive line looks to better at the BUCK with a year more experience on Fowler. Cox is probably a little bit of a step down, but he has the potential to play as well as Bullard a year ago, who didn't play all that well at times. A small net loss going from Easley to Bullard at the 3-technique, but we have to remember that only lasted for four games a year ago. So, technically we have a net gain at the 3-technique from the end of the year and a small net gain with the improvement of Cummings at the NOSE.
That second unit is what this piece is all about. McCalister needs to continue his big strides and then the staff needs to get Sherit ready or have a linebacker or two that can come in and put heat on the quarterback as well. Orr should be better than last year, but Damien Jacobs will have to be replaced with a quintet of tackle depth in Ivie, Brantley< Bostwick, Clark, and Holley. Production wise you have to think that the group will be better than the backups a year ago, but they need to work hard to be more reliable.
Preparation for a catastrophe like the Easley injury is the big thing. The guys on the second tier are not as good right now, but they need to continue to work to get that way in case the unthinkable happens again.