The Florida defensive line has more athleticism, speed and freakish ability than any other line in the SEC and although they don’t have a headliner like JaDaveon Clowney, the Gators’ front four could be the best in the conference.
Dominique Easley is the big name on the line and after turning down the NFL, he is in line for an All-SEC season and will be counted on to provide leadership for the youthful front. Fellow senior Damien Jacobs will be the starter at the nose, but the players who will blossom into potential future All-Americans are on the edge.
Jonathan Bullard had 27 tackles, two sacks and a team-leading seven quarterback hurries as a true freshman. At 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, he is versatile enough to play end or tackle in the same vein as Easley earlier in his career. He was the No. 1 ranked strong-side defensive end coming out of Crest high school in Shelby, N.C., and has the look of a future first-round pick.
Bullard played a significant role as a freshman, but it wasn’t under ideal circumstances as his snaps came after Ronald Powell tore his ACL and missed the season. Powell is healthy and looking great in camp and appears ready to fulfill the potential that preceded his arrival to Gainesville as the top recruit in the nation.
At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, he’ll line up at his familiar Buck linebacker spot and be a menace to opposing quarterbacks, but he won’t be the only player at the position to watch.
The listed starter at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end position is sophomore Dante Fowler, Jr. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder racked up 30 tackles and three sacks as a freshman and like Bullard, he got better with every passing week. Another top recruit — he was ranked as the No. 6 weak-side end — Fowler is a disruptive player whether he’s in a two or three-point stance, and I wish offensive linemen the best of luck trying to block him.
Florida already has the top secondary in the nation led by corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and their efforts in the defensive backfield will aid a blossoming pass rush. The longer it takes for wide receivers to get open, the more time they have to get to the quarterback.
Florida’s pressure will come from every angle as head coach Will Muschamp, defensive line coach Brad Lawing and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin are experimenting with a rabbits package to get as much speed on the field as possible. This will put Powell and Fowler on the edge with Bullard and Easley in the interior.
The Gators sacked the quarterback 30 times last season with two freshmen playing prominent roles. Doing so without Powell is impressive, but that number could grow to 40 this year.
With the continued development of Fowler, Bullard in particular and the much-anticipated return of Powell, Florida will have the best collection of talent on the defensive line in the conference.