- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jonathan Bullard expected to be one of the Gators' best players last season. Wanted it badly.
He came to Florida in 2012 as the No. 4-ranked defensive end prospect in the nation and put pressure on himself to produce even more after a solid freshman season.
But injuries forced him to play part of last season at defensive tackle, a position he had never played before.
He was lost amidst 600-pound double teams.
"If you know how to do something, you can do it full speed," he said. "But you're second-guessing yourself at something you haven’t done. You’re not moving as fast as you can. If you’re thinking too much, the ball is snapping and you’ve got a 300-pounder in front of you. You ain’t got time to think. So it was just different."
It showed in his production, on his face and in his body language.
"The coaches knew that I was kind of frustrated moving inside," he said. "I figured most people could tell that it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do."
"I talked to him about it most of the time," offensive lineman Trenton Brown said. "But I just try to tell him, 'Try to do what's best for the team. I know you didn't see yourself coming here to play three-technique, but it's best for the team and it'll show that you're versatile.'"
That is the personal impetus for Bullard. Floyd was a first-round draft pick, and Easley is looking to be selected early in the NFL draft in May. The benefits of playing inside and out, of showing that versatility on your game tape, led Bullard to seek the advice of Easley, who has been in town to prepare for his personal pro day in a few weeks.
"Actually, Ease has been around lately and it kind of happened to him," Bullard said. "He bumped outside and wanted to stay inside. I’m the opposite. I'm going from the outside and really not wanting to go inside. He just talked to me, told me to embrace it and work at it hard."
Bullard did just that in the offseason after head coach Will Muschamp called him into his office to discuss the move and why it was necessary.
"All offseason I’ve been working at it because I know we’re kind of light there now and had a couple of players out, so I was going to play a lot of it," he said. "Now I’ve got the hang of it and I can read things better at D-tackle like I could at end. Now it’s kind of even.
"To be honest, I’m actually trying to embrace it and enjoy it rather than last year, not wanting to but knowing I had to. So now I'm trying to embrace it and do it at a high level."
Muschamp believes the high-level results are already there.
"Jon Bullard I think is playing his best football," he said on Tuesday. "He's playing really well inside. ... I think Jon is a very good nickel rusher inside and he can really match up on some of the guards in our league."
The offensive linemen he goes up against in practice have certainly noticed.
"It's definitely a challenge," said junior OT Tyler Moore. "He's definitely stepped up his game this year. He's one of our better D-linemen, and he's showing that every day."
It didn't take long for Bullard to see the advantages his size and quickness would allow on the interior. Now he loves going up against guards and centers.
"You can definitely tell that they’re slower than the tackles," he said. "And also you’re closer to the ball, so you can read it better. Now I’ve gotten real good at it. At end, I just look at the tackle, but now that I'm inside I try to look at the two guards and the center. Sometimes you can kind of tell what’s about to happen before it happens. If you get that right, you can disrupt the play."
Since Floyd and Easley moved on, the Gators have searched for that disruptive presence inside. Bullard says he's the one to bring it back.
The smile has returned to his face. He says with a wink that he's got the defensive tackle position down. Bullard's body language is as easy to read as ever. He knows he's having a productive spring despite not taking a single snap at defensive end.
"This spring," he said, "I’ve been all inside."
And all in.
21hSam Khan Jr.
2dSam Khan Jr.