Spring preview: Defensive line

Florida heads into spring practice having to replace its most disruptive player from the 2014 season.

Dante Fowler was the focus of every offense Florida played. He faced double and sometimes even triple teams, with opponents daring another Florida pass rusher to beat them. The extra attention on Fowler didn’t stop him, as he led the Gators with 15 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries.

His big year has Fowler looking like a top 10 pick in next month’s NFL Draft that could go as high as the top three.

So where does Florida go now?

It’s impossible for one player to make up for what Fowler did off the edge last season. His versatility is what makes him so appealing to NFL teams, and the Gators don’t have a player on the roster this spring that can fill all the roles Fowler did last year.

On paper, the most logical solution to provide the pass rush is Alex McCalister. With six sacks last season, McCalister actually led the Gators in that category going into Fowler’s three-sack game against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl win. He made just 23 tackles on the entire season and needs to become more of a factor in the run game. At 6-6, 238, McCalister is up around 30 pounds from when he stepped on campus, but he still looks like he could use more weight on his frame.

The wildcard is Jonathan Bullard. His statistics have never blown anyone away, but he is an extremely important part of the Florida defensive line. He had 2.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries last season, seeing most of his time at defensive tackle. This spring gives defensive line coach Chris Rumph time to figure out Bullard’s best spot.

A lot of it could have to do with how the Gators look at defensive end and defensive tackle. Bullard’s versatility allows him to fill whatever need to Gators have at either position. When the previous staff asked him to move to tackle, it took him some time to come around because his heart was outside at defensive end.

Bullard and McCalister are the two biggest known commodities on the defensive line, but there’s still plenty of talent behind them.

The most proven player is Bryan Cox, but he’ll be out for the spring after having hip surgery in December. The highlight of Cox’s 2014 season came in a three-sack game at Tennessee.

On the interior of the line, Caleb Brantley heads into his third season looking for a breakout. He made 21 tackles last season with four of them going for a loss of yards. Brantley also added three quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. The 6-2, 319-pound lineman has the size to fill holes in the run game but the explosiveness to be a force in the pass rush. He’s a prime breakout candidate this spring.

Joey Ivie proved he could handle a backup role last season. At 6-3, 293 pounds, he could earn a bigger role this spring by practicing well. If Bullard finds a home at defensive end, Ivie and Brantley could start in the middle. Ultimately, the Gators will alternate bodies in the middle of the line and Ivie will be heavily involved.

Three redshirt freshmen will have a chance to earn a role this spring in Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark and Thomas Holley.

Bryan was expected to play as a freshman last year, but he got strep throat, lost weight and eventually took a redshirt. With his wrestling background, he impressed teammates last year with his strength.

Clark has the body to be a one-technique for Florida. His 6-2, 315-pound frame would be perfect as a run stuffer, and he should get the opportunity to do that this spring.

Holley’s upside might be the highest of anyone on the defensive line. With only a year and a half of high school football experience under his belt, Holley came to Florida with plenty of athleticism but not much polish. He’ll be a project for Rumph since Holley was forced to take a redshirt after suffering a labral tear on his hip.

Jordan Sherit could make a push at defensive end this spring. He looked much improved during open practices last fall, but he played in just nine games last season -- mostly on special teams -- and totaled three tackles. A fresh slate with a new coaching staff should help Sherit.

Redshirt freshman Justus Reed seemed destined for a redshirt after coming to campus needing to add weight. Now listed at 6-3, 226 pounds, Reed has natural pass rush abilities if he has the size to hang with offensive linemen.

This is a big spring for Jay-nard Bostwick. Heading into his redshirt sophomore season, the defensive tackle came to Florida with high expectations but hasn’t lived up to them in his first two seasons. Linemen usually take longer than most to develop, so Bostwick still fighting to break through isn’t a concern yet.

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