Best D-lineman in the country is a Gator?

If you’ve watched the maturation of Caleb Brantley as a Florida Gator, you saw the improvement he made as a redshirt sophomore from his redshirt freshman year. He showed flashes as a freshman, but he was more consistent as a sophomore and really showed elite skills and quickness. As a redshirt junior, he thinks he can be the best defensive lineman in the entire country.

Full pads were on for the first time on Wednesday at the practice fields at Florida. With that comes real hitting for the first time since the Bowl game back in the first week in January. It’s something Brantley was looking forward to and happy when Wednesday finally got here.

“It’s my way of releasing frustration, so it’s good to put the pads back on and release some energy,” Brantley told the Florida media on Wednesday shortly after practice. It’s great coming out here with your brothers and getting better every day. We have a common goal and we just keep getting better.

Brantley’s mindset when he started his career at Florida wasn’t focused. He came to Florida with great size and ability, but wasn’t put on the field in year one with talent on hand and until he changed that focus. That year has long past and for his third year on the field, he wants to push himself to get on the field as much as possible.

“I’m trying to improve my motor so I can play more snaps and get more consistent,” Brantley said. “I’m working on getting stronger and faster every time I work out, so it’s nothing new.

As far as particular things to work on, he has elite size going 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds. Although the staff wants him at 310 pounds by the start of fall, he intends on getting quicker and believes that part of the game is where he can improve the most.

“Speed and quickness… my speed off the ball, hand quickness, and running to the ball, “Brantley said of what he wants to improve on the most. “I feel like if I can stay on the field longer and get my wind up, I can help my team a lot.”

Kan Li / Scout
 That quickness will help as Brantley gets the double team this year. The practice situations are already working him on the double teams. Those double teams in the trenches are frustrating, but Brantley knows if he plays them right his team will excel.

“It’s always fun. I love hitting and getting better with my brothers. I love double teams. I feel like it’s a good way to get better for in-game situations because when you play LSU and Georgia, they double team a lot.

“It’s frustrating, but at the same time I can’t be selfish. If you’re good you’re going to get double teamed nine times out of 10. It is a chance for other guys to step up. I’m not the only one on the line that’s a hell raiser. You have CeCe Jefferson, Bryan Cox, and Taven Bryan… I love our whole d-line. Pick your poison.”

And at the same time, Brantley invites teams to come after him, because he is absolutely ready to show what he is capable of.

“I feel like I’m the best d-lineman in the country,” he said. “I’m coming out and trying to prove it.”

 One big thing for Brantley this year as opposed to previous seasons is that he has to be one of the leaders on the defense. As the likely marquee player up front a lot is expected of him in that regard and he understands that trying to replicate future NFL star Jonathan Bullard and his leadership from a year ago is what his team needs now.

“He taught me how to be a leader, a role model to the younger guys, and how to always do stuff right,” Brantley said about Bullard. “You don’t want to be the guy that the coaches look to lead the young guys and then mess stuff up. I am trying to lead by example. Do all the little stuff right; having my shirt tucked in… the little things.

Kan Li / Scout
 The defense lost a lot from a year ago. Bullard is likely a very high round draft pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is expected to go in the top third of the first round. Safety Keanu Neal has seen his draft prospects raise dramatically. Middle linebacker Antonio Morrison led the team in tackles.  Pass rusher Alex McCalister led the team in sacks. Corner Brian Poole was a three year starter and great tackler. There is a ton to replace, but the expectations among staff and player like Brantley is that they will be as good or better in 2016.

“A big philosophy in our defense is ‘next man up’,” Brantley said. “We’re not really focusing on guys we are losing; we’re just working to be better than those guys. We never want to be like someone, we want to be better. I feel like we have a special d-line group, a special linebacker group, we have a special defense all together. ‘BDN’, best defense in the nation and now we have to prove it.”

One of his protégés is sophomore CeCe Jefferson. Jefferson had a really nice freshman season as a strong side defensive end, but has grown into a role where he will be playing a lot of three-technique defensive tackle, the same position as Brantley.

“Just like everyone else, CeCe is working hard,” Brantley said. “He moved inside to the three-technique and learning and getting better. He’s looked great.”

Brantley knows he can mentor the younger Jefferson.

“I can teach him a few things about picking up offensive lineman habits before the plays like you can  figure out what kind of plays they are going to run,” Brantley said. “We are both running the three-technique position, so we’re running together. I have been throwing him a few pointers here and there.”

One big concern for this 2016 team is the play if the offensive line. With all the new guys and so little experience a year ago, the offensive line was a unit that was a real struggle. A year later, with a lot more experience and some young guys who have gotten bigger and better waiting in the wings, Brantley is starting to see some changes.

“Those guys are working over there and getting better,” he said about the line.  (Strength and conditioning) Coach Kent is doing an amazing job in the weight room. I feel like we got bigger and stronger. You can look at those guys and see they got big as hell. They are bigger and stronger, more in unison. It’s just a better group overall.”

Kan Li / Scout
 As for the guy that he enjoys competing with, there was no question in Brantley’s mind. Sophomore guard Tyler Jordan played in every game of his freshman season and started the last few in 2015. Brantley and Jordan can be seen battling it out every day in practice.  

“I line up against Tyler Jordan a lot,” Brantley said before slyly offering up a little quip. “I enjoy making him better.”

Brantley knows that Jordan is making him better as well.

“That is my favorite offensive lineman,” he said. “I just think he’s great. He can bend, he’s flexible, and he has good feet. He likes to work. We make each other better.

“He’s a little nasty inside. You’ve got to have a little ‘dog’. I like to talk junk during practice and he just comes with it every play.”

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