If there was a gamble it was Bullard’s decision to return to the University of Florida for his senior season. His draft stock could have nose-dived and there is always the injury factor to consider. Does anyone remember Ed Chester?
Plus there was that matter of a brand new coaching staff. Bullard was recruited to Florida by Will Muschamp and the defense he played in from 2012-14 had Muschamp’s fingerprints all over it. How would Bullard get along with new head coach Jim McElwain? What about defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and new D-line coach Chris Rumph?
“You know, last year I thought about coming out with the coaching change and, you know, you hear things about how that's going to be and you have to learn new things, but I buckled down,” Bullard said at a Wednesday press conference in the media room of the Citrus Bowl Stadium. “Me and my family made a decision to come back, and I think it was a great decision. I'm playing the best ball I've played since I've been here. They've put me in good positions to make plays and be the guy to step up when needed to.”
Proof that Bullard was at his best is found in the numbers. You can manipulate stats to say just about anything you want but in this case the numbers don’t lie and probably don’t do Bullard justice.
In Florida’s 13 games leading into Friday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl game with Michigan, Bullard has been in on 63 tackles including 17.5 for losses of 88 yards. Additionally, he has 6.5 sacks for 48 yards of losses, two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and 6 quarterback hurries. What those numbers don’t tell you is how many tackles for loss, sacks and quarterback hurries Bullard created for other Gators because he was so disruptive.
Florida’s defense heads into Friday’s game ranked #6 nationally in total defense (295.7 yards per game allowed), 17th in rushing defense (120.6 yards), 9th in scoring defense (16.5 points per game), tied for 10th in tackles for loss (7.5 per game) and tied for 7th in sacks (40 for 294 yards in losses or 3.08 per game).
Once Bullard made his decision to return to Florida, Collins says he became “the poster child” for both hard work and helping young guys on the team transition to a new set of coaches.
“The things that he did in the off-season, the things that he did throughout the year to make himself one of the best players in college football, tackles for loss, sacks, just the impact that he had on every game, you know, you don't see guys do that a lot,” Collins said. “And I just think it's a credit to him and his character, his work ethic and, you know, I think what he has done has made our defense what it has been this year.”
Florida’s defense played at an elite level during the Muschamp era and many times when there are coaching changes, elite units see a noticeable dropoff in production but that didn’t happen this year. Starting in the offseason, Collins and his staff didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. New schemes were integrated into the things the Gators already did well and the terminology, which is so important, remained practically the same.
Equally important, Collins and the staff didn’t use that break the players down then build them back up technique which we hear so much about. Instead they elected to treat the players with dignity and respect.
“I think that's a big thing that helped us to become so tight so fast was because of the way they came in and the way that they wanted to do things,” Bullard said. “I think a lot of coaches come in and say we've got to break this guy or a big name like me at the time try to show that they've got power, and they didn't do that. They got everybody to buy in. And I bought in early so I can get some of the young guys to do it and I think that's where some of our success came from.”
Once Bullard made the decision to stay, he was all in and there was no turning back. He worked hard, improved as both a player and as a leader, and helped the Gators to become one of college football’s feel good stories for 2015. The same team that was predicted by most experts to finish 6-6 and in the lower half of the East Division of the Southeastern Conference won 10 games in the regular season while earning Florida’s first SEC East title and trip to Atlanta for the conference championship game since 2009.
While helping turn 2015 into a season that will be remembered fondly well into the future by a championship-starved Gator Nation, Bullard also made it a special time for his mother.
“This was my last season and my mom missed some games a couple of years ago,” Bullard explained. “She was working or whatever, but this year she did whatever she had to do to be able to come to my games … and knowing she’s out there somewhere – ‘cause I can’t really find her [in the stadium], but that means a lot.”
There were plenty of folks who questioned why Bullard made the choice to return to the University of Florida for one last season. Call it what you want but it was a gamble. However, sometimes gambles pay off handsomely as they will with Bullard. His roll of the dice will pay off with a better NFL contract thanks to a higher position in the draft, but he will also have the satisfaction when he looks back of knowing he was part of the foundation for Florida football’s return to a championship level.
“I think it's the best decision I made in my life,” Bullard said.
No one can disagree with that.