Florida slipped past Vanderbilt to clinch the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division on Saturday, but the Gators didn’t escape the win unscathed.
UF’s heralded defense could be without as many as three starters against South Carolina this weekend, including star defensive tackle Jon Bullard.
Bullard, who has anchored the SEC’s No. 1 scoring defense, injured his arm against the Commodores and is doubtful for Saturday.
The senior defensive tackle ranks third in the conference with 13 tackles for loss and has 5.0 sacks, too.
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“He won’t [practice Monday],” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “We’ll see how that goes as the week moves on.”
Bullard, a 285-pound, versatile lineman, has emerged as one of the top defensive playmakers in the country. He turned down the NFL Draft last offseason, and the decision is paying dividends, as Bullard’s stock has soared in recent weeks.
Bullard’s potential loss is a blow, as the Gators will also be without rotational tackle Joey Ivie (abdominal strain). Meanwhile, starting safety Keanu Neal (55 tackles, one interception) is questionable with a foot injury.
Suddenly, UF injuries coupled with the first-half suspension to defensive lineman Jordan Sherit leave the Gators perilously thin up front.
Sherit, who plays both end and tackle, must sit out the first half Saturday after being ejected for targeting on a fourth-quarter sack against Vandy.
“CeCe [Jefferson] will obviously play a bunch more,” McElwain said. “In Jordan’s case, that’s just a one half deal, so we’ve got to work through that going into [the game]. But we’ll have to have some guys step up and play good.”
Jefferson has flashed in a backup role this season, but the five-star freshman will be relied on heavily against the Gamecocks. UF will also lean on standout defensive ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
“It all starts up front,” senior safety Brian Poole said, attributing the defense’s success to a dominant defensive line. “Nothing is possible without those guys. Really they make it easy on us when you don’t have to cover that long.”
Bullard, McCalister and Cox combined for 7 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks in Saturday’s win. The Gators held the Commodores to just 175 total yards. After the dominating effort, UF ranks in the top five in the majority of defensive categories (No. 1 in scoring, No. 2 in yards, No. 2 in sacks, No. 1 in takeaways, No. 5 in TFL, No. 5 in third down defense).
“That was probably as dominant of a performance in special teams and defense as I’ve ever been involved with,” McElwain said. “And that was great to see. And when we needed, we finished.”