The offenses Florida faced this season focused on what Dante Fowler was doing. His pass rush off the edge demanded attention and double teams from opposing offensive lines. Despite that, the junior was still third on the team with 57 tackles, adding 12 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.
He was voted a first team All-SEC member by the league’s coaches, but what will the Gators do without him on the line next season?
The most important NFL Draft decision after Fowler is junior Jonathan Bullard. He played defensive end early in his career before sliding inside and taking off at defensive tackle in 2014. His versatility would be appealing to NFL teams if he wants to go, but he would give the Gators a big boost by returning. He could still move outside if Florida needs help at defensive end.
Bryan Cox projects as a starter at one of the defensive end positions. He didn’t have a big year, but he’s a solid player that the Gators could definitely use. Cox had four sacks last season -- three coming in the Tennessee game -- with six tackles for a loss and three quarterback hurries.
The most intriguing defensive end is Alex McCalister. He was the biggest beneficiary of the attention Fowler received, as McCalister led the Gators in sacks with six on the year. The previous coaching staff knew he would be a project when they signed him, but in his third year on campus, it clicked and he made an impact. He still has room to improve for Florida and could get more snaps because of it next season.
The case of Gerald Willis is an interesting one. There’s no denying his talent, but he needs to mature. Will Muschamp said after the Florida State game that if he was still the coach, Willis would be off the team after a late hit he delivered to Jameis Winston during a play Willis was on the sideline for. What will Jim McElwain think? We’ll have to wait to find out, but there’s no question Willis has to grow up to have a chance at Florida. He played in only seven games after being a disruptive player in fall camp.
The Gators still have some younger linemen that could help off the edge. Jordan Sherit had a good fall and contributed on special teams. Taven Bryan enrolled early last year and looked poised to contribute, but he ultimately took a redshirt. His wrestling background makes him a tough matchup at the line of scrimmage. Justus Reed took a redshirt to add weight after starting fall camp at 213 pounds.
On the interior of the defensive line, the Gators lose Darious Cummings and Leon Orr while Bullard’s upcoming decision is important. The Gators have bodies inside, but they need some third-year players to step up.
Caleb Brantley has the potential to be exactly what the Gators need inside. At 6-2, 295 pounds, Brantley has unusual speed for his size. He made four tackles for a loss and added two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery while playing in all 11 games. He needs to be more consistent, but the talent is there for a breakout year in 2015.
Joey Ivie played off the bench as a sophomore, getting in all 11 games. He made two tackles for a loss with one sack, adding one quarterback hurry. He bulked up in the offseason to handle playing defensive tackle and looked capable of sticking there going into the future.
The coaches thought about playing Khairi Clark as a true freshman before electing to redshirt him. At 6-2, 308 pounds, he did need to reshape his body some, but all the tools are there for Clark to play as a redshirt freshman and be an important part.
As a redshirt freshman, Jay-nard Bostwick made just two tackles in four games played. The Gators need him to get better next season and be trusted off the bench.
Thomas Holley is an intriguing piece with high upside. At 6-3, 312 pounds, Holley is still relatively new to football with only a few years of experience. It’s his athleticism that makes him a big prospect, being able to dunk at his size. He took a redshirt after a sports hernia injury from high school created a torn labrum in his hip. This will be an important offseason for him.