The challenge for Dante Fowler, Jr. remains consistency. There were times during the 2013 season when he was unblockable. Other times, he went quiet and was hardly noticeable. The coaching staff understands his value to the defense as an elite pass rusher, and they wanted to push him to be the best.
This spring, they challenged him to attack every day with a professional mindset and prepare to make an impact on every game this fall. The coaches were thrilled with his effort in the spring, and he played very well. As a preseason first team All-SEC pick, Fowler is set for a monster year.
The loss of Dominique Easley after three games last season forced other defensive tackles to emerge. Darious Cummings benefitted from the extra playing time. He made three tackles for a loss and one sack, adding one interception, one pass breakup, two quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. He was Florida’s most disruptive interior lineman after Easley went down.
Cummings and Leon Orr will likely be the two starters at defensive tackle. The 6-5, 305-pound Orr heads into his fifth and final season in Gainesville after finishing fourth on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss last season. He has the size to make an impact this year and is the best guess to start with Cummings.
The wildcard in this position group is Jonathan Bullard. He played defensive end during his freshman season, but after Easley got hurt in practice after the third game of the year last season, Bullard played at defensive tackle and end for the rest of the year. In spring practice, Bullard played exclusively at defensive tackle to get more reps and become more comfortable at the position.
This fall, he is expected to split time between tackle and end. The Gators like to rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh, and Bullard will get plenty of snaps even if he doesn’t start at the beginning of the season.
Bryan Cox, Jr. was the beneficiary of Bullard’s move. He worked with the first team during the spring, and if the coaches want to use Bullard mostly at tackle this fall, Cox is the most likely candidate to start. He doesn’t blow anyone away with his physical tools, but he’s a smart player that stays in position and always gives great effort.
The Florida coaches are happy with the level of play from the five names above. After that, the depth needs to be more consistent.
One player that could break out this fall is Alex McCalister. The Florida coaches took him in the 2012 recruiting class knowing that he would be a project. He has added the necessary weight and is now 6-6, 246 pounds, so this could be the year that he makes an impact. It would be a good time for the Gators if that happened because the pass rush after Fowler won’t scare many teams.
The coaching staff is also hoping that four second-year players will make a leap and help the depth of the defensive line. Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley both took redshirts last season but have the size and athleticism to make an impact at tackle. The Gators need one of them to emerge this fall, not only to add depth for this season, but to give hope at defensive tackle for the 2015 season when Cummings and Orr will be gone.
Joey Ivie played last season and split time during spring practice between tackle and end. He’ll provide depth at both during his sophomore year. Jordan Sherit redshirted last year but could provide another body in the pass rush at defensive end this fall.
There are five scholarship freshmen defensive linemen that will battle to make an impact this fall.
Gerald Willis is the mostly highly regarded coming to campus, a five-star defensive lineman that can help at tackle or end because of his 6-2, 255-pound frame. There’s plenty of room on the depth chart for him to make an impact this fall and earn a role on the field.
Taven Bryan was the only one of the five to enroll early, and he didn’t look like a freshman during the spring. A former wrestler in high school, Bryan used his strength to take advantage of the offensive linemen. He drew rave reviews from multiple players on the team.
Thomas Holley is the most raw of the defensive linemen, but his 6-3, 312-pound frame combined with elite athleticism makes for an exciting package. It might not come this year for Holley since he only played five high school football games before his senior year. Even if it takes some time for him to reach his potential, Holley’s ceiling is extremely high. Fall camp is the first step to reaching it.