The difference has been getting comfortable in his role. Bullard bought into the defensive tackle position during recent years, but he knew he would be playing it even more this fall. Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph wanted to make sure Bullard understood why they wanted him in that position.
His combination of size, speed and strength provides them a playmaker at defensive tackle.
“I think that’s where he belongs,” Rumph sad. “We sat down with him and told him that we were planning on doing it and I explained to him why. Once he got into it and bought it, he realized, ‘this is my home.’ I think he’s really feeling comfortable. He’s a veteran, so he’s been around a lot of football and he’s starting to learn.”
Bullard always had the respect of his teammates, coaches and opposing offenses last season, but he was playing with All-American and No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler. While Fowler received most of the praise for the Florida pass rush, Bullard was still an important part of the defense. However, he ended the year with 8.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
He wanted to return to Florida for his senior year, even with a new coach, to build on those numbers, finish out his degree and elevate his stock into what he hoped would be a first-round selection in the NFL Draft. The versatility he has show this year is an important part of it.
Bullard came to Florida strictly as a defensive end, but the most to tackle was necessary for the team and he unselfishly agreed. He has become so attached to the defensive tackle position that when Rumph told him that he would be playing more defensive end against Ole Miss last week, Bullard was disappointed. As always, he shook it off and did what the team need him to do, but it showed Rumph that the senior lineman has truly bought into playing defensive tackle.
More than anything, he’s able to play defensive end and defensive tackle at a high level.
“It’s very rare,” Rumph said. “People don’t realize the sacrifice that that guy made and made it without hesitation. Here’s a guy that could have left early at the defensive end position. He comes his senior year, he has new coaches. Not only does he have new coaches, he has to learn a new system. What he’s done to embrace that role is unbelievable.”
The Gators are rotating heavily on the defensive line, but Rumph said there’s no method to his madness. He plays it by feel, keeping a close eye on the defensive line to make sure they have energy. When the game gets into the fourth quarter, he sticks with the ‘hot hand’ approach and keeps the players having the best game on the field.
He learned a lesson about the rotation while working for Nick Saban at Alabama. The Crimson Tide finished a game and had a disappointing performance by their defensive line in the fourth quarter. Rumph left like he was to blame for that, keeping players on the field for too long.
Saban told him that defensive linemen are different than skill players because they “only have one tank.” He told Rumph to be more careful in how he burnt their fuel during the game, because once it was gone, it wouldn’t come back.
“I try to in my head just keep them fresh and keep them going,” Rumph said. “I really don’t have a pitch count. I just sort of feel it, and then all of the sudden I just try to go with the hot guy and don’t burn him out, don’t burn his tank out.”
MISSOURI PRESENTS A CHALLENGE
The Florida defense has 18 sacks this season with 46 tackles for a loss. Those numbers could be in for a challenge on Saturday against a Missouri offense that wants to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand in a hurry. The Tigers lean on a veteran offensive line to protect, this time for freshman Drew Lock in his second career start, but the ball will be coming out of his hand often times before the Florida defensive line has a chance to get to him.
"We just want to affect the guy as much as possible,” Rumph said. “Get our hands up. This quarterback, he's a big kid. So you could put your hand up, but he's still 6-4. We've just got to get in his face, push the pocket on him, just make it dirty for him. Don't give him a clean pocket and try to change his launch point."