GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida lost more than just a rare defensive talent when Dante Fowler Jr. decided to turn pro.
They lost a dynamic playmaker, a guy opposing offenses had to account for on every play and a guy who embraced the challenge of elevating his teammates’ play.
They nearly lost the player most equipped to replace Fowler in that alpha dog role, too.
Jonathan Bullard accepted a leadership role shortly after talking with new Florida coach Jim McElwain. Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Bullard was leaning toward following Fowler to the NFL and giving up his senior season after Will Muschamp was fired as Florida’s coach.
“With the coaching change, I was pretty close to going ahead and leaving,” Bullard said. “It’s something I talked to my family about a lot. With new coaches coming in, that’s not always an adjustment you want to make your last year. But it’s not always a bad thing, which I found out.”
Even though Bullard received a “stay in school” grade from the NFL advisory committee, he felt like he would elevate his draft stock in workouts.
“I had confidence in myself that after working out and [NFL] teams seeing my athletic ability and what I can bring that I would have moved up, kind of like D.J. Humphries,” Bullard said. “They told him to come back, and he’s got a chance to go in the first round.”
Extremely close to Muschamp, Bullard said he knew very little about new Florida coach Jim McElwain, but was determined to hear him out before finalizing his decision. McElwain’s pitch was more about what was best for Bullard, and not so much what was best for Florida, which is a big reason Bullard is still a Gator.
“The thing I liked best is that Coach Mac said he was here for me and that either way, whether I left or stayed, that he would support me,” Bullard recalled. “I had good vibes. I felt good about what he was telling me and with Coach [Geoff] Collins coming in as defensive coordinator, it wasn’t like I was going to have to learn a whole new defense.
“I felt like I had more to prove here and to live up to my expectations and take on that leadership role that Dante was so good at. I wasn’t ready to leave. It’s not the way I wanted to go out.”
Bullard, a 6-foot-3, 277-pound senior, plans to play both inside and outside on Florida’s defensive line this season. He was primarily a tackle a year ago, and his 52 total tackles were second most on the team among defensive linemen. He also had 8.5 tackles for loss and has the quickness as an inside pass-rusher to wreak even more havoc behind the line of scrimmage this season.
Collins’ defense will be similar to what the Gators ran last season, but there will also be traces of what Collins ran at Mississippi State last season and what Alabama has run since Nick Saban has been there. Collins worked briefly at Alabama.
“It’s a little different, in terminology more than anything,” Bullard said. “Most of the things we’re running, we’ve run. We just call it different things.”
Defense was never the problem under Muschamp. The Gators might have lost 13 games over the past two seasons, but they finished in the top 20 nationally each year in both total defense and scoring defense.
As much as Bullard will be counted on to make game-changing plays on defense in 2015, an even more important role is ongoing off the field. The buy-in process under McElwain was largely successful this spring as the Gators look to pick up the pieces and move forward under a new regime. At the same time, Bullard has taken it upon himself to make sure everybody is on board.
With the way the Florida offense has struggled over the past few years, Bullard is making doubly sure there are no divisions on the team.
“The biggest thing was the coaching staff getting everybody to buy in,” Bullard said. “With me being a leader, the other players are watching to see if I’m buying in and all-in for Coach Mac and Coach Collins or if I’m still kind of sitting back and watching.
“My job was to help Coach Mac and get everybody to buy in. I think it’s going pretty well, but we still need to get certain things out of certain guys. That was my biggest thing — getting myself to buy in as fast as I could. I’m all in now and have had many conversations with Coach Mac about it.
“Together, we’re going to make sure everybody buys in and get this program back to where it’s supposed to be.”