Gators' camp preview: Defensive line

The Gators will spend the fall trying to find out how to replace one of the most feared pass rushers in college football last season.

Dante Fowler changed opposing offenses last season. He demanded double teams and their full attention. That made life easier for some of Florida’s other pass rushers to get after the quarterback, but this fall, they won’t have that same luxury since the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Fowler at No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft.

It’s hard to figure out who the starters on the line will be largely because of the versatility senior Jonathan Bullard provides. He could’ve left early and followed Fowler to the NFL, but the dream of a degree and a possible first-round selection in the future made Bullard decide to return to school. He’s an important weapon for Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who can put Bullard in different spots on the line to confuse the opposing offenses.

If the young pass rushers don’t develop like the coaches hope, they can stick Bullard at defensive end and trust him against the run and the pass. If the talented interior defensive linemen still need more time, Bullard can start inside and give them time to reach their potential.

Florida’s best edge rusher should be redshirt junior Alex McCalister. Last season, he was second on the team with nine tackles for a loss and second on the team with six sacks. He made more sacks than Fowler for most of the second half of the year before Fowler’s three-sack game in the Birmingham Bowl gave him the lead to end the year.

At 6-6, 239 pounds, McCalister is still figuring out how to use his frame. He came to campus around 200 pounds but stayed disciplined to adding weight and has seen it pay off.

Behind McCalister at defensive end is Bryan Cox, Jr. He’s a solid defensive end that had four sacks last season, and three of them came in a win at Tennessee. The other returning options are Jordan Sherit and Just Reed. Sherit made three tackles while playing in nine games last season, but most of his playing time came on special teams. Reed needed to add some weight when he got to campus next year, but he’s already up to 6-3, 234 pounds and could help in the pass rush this year.

The Gators also have two freshmen that could make immediate impacts. Five-star recruit CeCe Jefferson is already 6-1, 275 pounds, but the Gators could use his pass rush skills off the edge this year. How much he sees the field could depend on where Bullard plays. Jabari Zuniga is another freshman that could force his way onto the field. A sleeper until late in the recruiting process, Zuniga has the senior film that supports him as a late-bloomer on the field.

Talent won’t be an issue at defensive tackle. The Gators have accumulated plenty of high-upside talent, and after losing Darious Cummings and Leon Orr from last year’s team, Florida will have to count on some young players this year.

Caleb Brantley makes the most sense as a starter on the defensive line. He made 21 tackles last season with four tackles for a loss, three quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. His 6-2, 314-pound frame is more than enough to hang in the trenches of the Southeastern Conference, and he has the quickness to be disruptive in the backfield. Florida needs Brantley’s junior season to be the year he breaks out.

The second starter seems up for grabs. Bullard could handle it if no one emerges, but Taven Bryan and Joey Ivie make the most sense of players currently at the position full time.

Bryan was set to play as a true freshman last year but two bouts with strep throat kept him off the field, forcing him to take a redshirt. He followed that by turning into one of the breakout players in the spring. Bryan earned first-team reps and seems like a logical pick to start next to Brantley in the middle this year.

Ivie played in every game last year, making 24 tackles with one sack and one quarterback hurry. The 6-1, 302-pound lineman can hold his own at defensive tackle, but he doesn’t have the breakout upside Bryan does. Both will be heavily involved at defensive tackle this season.

Florida’s duo of redshirt freshmen defensive tackles could also earn reps this year. Khairi Clark and Thomas Holley were two important recruits in Florida’s 2014 recruiting class. Clark took a redshirt to reshape his body while Holley was forced to redshirt because of an injury.

Clark is now 6-2, 321 pounds and looks like an ideal nose tackle if he has the strength necessary for the position. At 6-3, 320 pounds, Holley still has elite athleticism for his size and could be a breakout player at tackle. He missed last season with a hip injury and should be able to contribute as long as the injury doesn’t reoccur.

Whether Andrew Ivie ends up on the offensive line or defensive line, he’s an interior player. Fellow freshman Luke Ancrum is also a likely redshirt this fall.

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