University of Florida

Florida Gators’ defensive line could be a menace for QBs

Dante Fowler Jr. led Florida with 8.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries and 15 tackles for loss last season.

The then-junior all-world edge rusher opted to go pro and was selected No. 3 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Now, the Gators must replace Fowler’s production, but there’s belief inside UF’s locker room the team’s pass rush will actually be better this season without the former All-SEC performer.

“Dante left, it’s just like everybody has their question marks about who’s going to do this, who’s going to do that,” defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. said.

“I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that big of an adjustment because we have good talent right here between me, Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Joey Ivie. We have a really solid D-line and it’s going to be more than enough to put up even better numbers than we put up last year.”

In 2014, Florida recorded 30 sacks, averaging 2.5 per game. The Gators return 62 percent of their sack production, and the expectation is guys such as Cox (4 sacks), McCalister (6) and interior rushers Caleb Brantley and Taven Bryan emerge from last season’s reserve roles.

Cox, a standout at St. Thomas Aquinas, has flashed as a secondary edge threat, but the redshirt junior is confident this is the year he develops into a consistent, menacing rusher.

“I’m really just trying to be that guy,” he said.

Florida’s defensive line is inexperienced, but it’s littered with blue-chippers and potential stars. Cox and McCalister are classic long-armed, athletic ends, while Brantley, a 6-2, 315-pound powerful and disruptive defensive tackle, could surface as the team’s next coveted NFL lineman. CeCe Jefferson has terrorized in camp and is a five-star freshman waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, the group’s mainstay and leader is versatile senior Jon Bullard, an inside-outside force capable of playing several positions up front. Last season, Bullard was second on the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and hurries (12).

“We’ve got guys do some things they shouldn’t be able to do,” Brantley said.

“Obviously, you’ve got Jonathan Bullard on the edge, McCalister on the edge, Bryan Cox. I mean every guy on our d-line can pass rush.”

Florida also has a new defensive coordinator who coaches a more aggressive, attacking system. While Will Muschamp’s defenses were reliably stout, the team’s pass rush came and went as the scheme’s design was more about preventing big plays. But new DC Geoff Collins, formally at Mississippi State, is willing to gamble far more frequently by applying extra pressure.

“It’s just a different style,” Cox Jr. said, also calling the defense “more exotic.”

“It’s a lot more blitz friendly, a lot more different people coming from everywhere. It’s mayhem. Exactly what [Collins’ nickname] is: The Minister of Mayhem.”

Mississippi State finished second in the SEC in sacks last season, and with Florida’s loaded secondary, the Gators can afford to take chances blitzing.

When asked what sort of pass rush he thought Florida would produce this season, head coach Jim McElwain stated, emphatically, “A good one.”

Related stories from Miami Herald