A big reason for that is the leadership on the defensive side of the ball. Two of the leaders -- defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III -- accompanied Florida coach Jim McElwain to SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., last week and the first-year coach couldn’t be more thankful for what they have meant to the team in the coaching transition.
Bullard didn’t have to return for his senior year. He submitted his paperwork for the NFL Draft but the news wasn’t what he wanted. He saw a chance to return for his senior year with hopes of moving his stock into the first round of next year’s NFL Draft. With Dante Fowler gone, Bullard will have a chance to be the leader of the defensive line.
He took that responsibility seriously in the offseason and has the respect of the Florida defense.
“What he has done, I can’t tell you how proud I am of him,” McElwain said of Bullard. “Sitting in the office, saying, ‘I’m ready to take a true leadership role and bring these guys along and show them how to do it.’ (Defensive line coach) Chris Rumph has done an outstanding job building that relationship. That’s huge because we lost a lot of guys that got draft that were pretty good players. For him coming back, he had been one of those guys. For him to come back, we’re really excited about it.”
Bullard doesn’t have the same skillset Dante Fowler had to be a force off the edge, but he is more versatile. The senior can play both ends and both defensive tackles, even pass rushing off the edge from a stand up position. The key this fall will be to keep defenses from being able to guess where Bullard is coming from.
“We hope to be able to move him around quite a bit,” McElwain said. “From an offensive standpoint, if you always know where that guy is you can always slide your protection, chip a back, bump him with a tight end on the way out. Whatever that is. What we try to do is make sure we’re putting him in different spots so it’s not as easy from an offensive standpoint to know where that guy is.”
There isn’t much of a mystery about where Hargreaves will be during the fall. The Gators will use him to take away the opponent’s best receiver and make life difficult for opposing offenses.
When McElwain took the Florida job, he knew who Hargreaves was. The All-American honors make him someone college football fans across the country know about. Getting to know him on and off the field has helped Hargreaves live up to the hype to his head coach.
“He’s all that’s been advertised,” McElwain said. “The guy’s a great player, understands how to handle himself. He gets it and loves to compete. That’s what I love about those guys. They like to practice. When the competition is there he really elevates his play even a little bit more.”
Hargreaves attributes his mature approach to being the son of a college football coach and growing up around the game. He knows what is expected away from the field and how to best prepare himself to excel on it. It’s an example McElwain isn’t afraid to point out to other players on the team.
“I love the way this guy comes to work every day,” McElwain said. “The way he practices, the way he thrives in competition, and not only that, the way he takes care of himself in the classroom and other things that go along with being successful in life. Growing up the son of a coach, he obviously has been around it, and I think that that is huge.
“Here's the best thing -- he's fun to watch practice. The guy loves it. That's what I think separates some of the guys at times is the ones that really, truly go out there and compete every day to perfect their craft. He's one of those guys. He's a lot of fun to be around, and he's great to watch on tape.”