He was one of the last players off the bus as the Florida Gators pulled up to the Dizney Lacrosse and Softball facility for the start of spring practice last Monday but a few months ago, senior defensive lineman Jon Bullard wasn’t sure he would even be on that bus.
After a junior season where he recorded a career-high 52 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks and watched some of his best friends on the team leave early for the NFL, Bullard seriously considered joining him.
Not to mention the coach that he committed to — Will Muschamp — was canned in the middle of the season. Bullard showed his support of Muschamp via his eye black during Florida’s final home game last season. A defensive lineman with rare athleticism, Bullard would have been able to shine at the NFL Combine, like his former teammate D.J. Humphries, who is rocketing up draft boards.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t [have second thoughts about coming back] because I see the combine could do a lot,” Bullard said. “And just with D.J. being so athletic, he rised [up draft boards], so I feel like I would have done good at the combine,” said Bullard. “Of course, you’re going to have second thoughts and think. But I made my decision and I’m happy with it and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Fortunately for Bullard and the Gators, new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is deploying a very similar defense as the Gators have run the past several years. The schemes are the same, plays are similar and even some of the terminology is carrying over. Bullard was told this while sitting down with Collins and McElwain during his decision process and it’s part of the reason he was on the bus last Monday.
“That’s actually something that we talked about when I was making my decision, me and coach Mac,” said Bullard. “It’s basically the same, a few different things. I think it’s a good defense.”
He may have been one of the last off the bus as the Gators arrived, but he was one of two players, joining junior Vernon Hargreaves, in the middle of the team, firing them up with his words before practice began.
A five-star recruit out of North Carolina, Bullard has played in the shadow of those that came before him. First it was Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, then Dante Fowler. The previous coaching staff used Bullard’s athleticism to their advantage, moving him from defensive end to tackle and back and forth as the season went on.
It’s a move Bullard was hesitant to make and even resisted to Muschamp when the idea was first brought up. He did it anyway, because he’s a team guy and knew that moving him inside would benefit the team as a whole.
Now, with a new staff and a clean slate, Bullard is back outside where he can focus on what NFL teams want to see — getting to the quarterback. He had to learn how to take on double-teams the past two years playing inside and that will benefit him this season, as opponents will gameplan for him each week. He’s had great examples come before him and now is his time to lead. His turn to become the example.
“That’s just something I’ve got to take on my back and make the most out of it. When they need something or need a play, I need to be the guy to come through. I’ve got the most experience. I’m been playing since my freshman year. I know the feel of the game. I know how things go. I’m an older guy, so I’ve got to take that one.”
He stood in the middle of the field with Hargreaves. The eyes of all of their peers trained on them. The coaching staff took a step back, they would have a chance to run the practice but this moment was for the players, especially a senior who a few months ago wasn’t sure if he’d even be on that field with the script Gators running on either side of his helmet.
Jon Bullard has waited four years for this moment. To be the guy that the team looks for, the guy that the coaching staff looks to lead on and off the field. There is added pressure and expectations. Every move he makes will not only give an example to his teammates but NFL scouts and GM’s are watching as well.
“I’m definitely ready for it,” he said.