Before Florida’s defensive linemen leave the locker room each Saturday, they make sure everybody is bringing something different to the party.
“We say it’s going to be a party in the backfield,” defensive end Alex McCalister said. “What you bringing? I’m bringing chips. You’re bringing drinks.”
They’ve been party animals this season.
The Gators’ defensive line has accounted for 42.5 of the team’s 69 tackles for loss and 21.5 of the team’s 27 sacks this season. Florida is tied for 19th nationally in tackles for loss and tied for 13th nationally in sacks.
Florida’s dominant defensive line is one of the biggest reasons behind the unit’s rise. After finishing last season ranked 15th nationally in total defense, the Gators are sixth in that category this year.
“That’s why linebackers are making plays,” linebacker Antonio Morrison said of opposing offenses doubling Florida’s defensive linemen. “That’s why you’ve got a good defense. That’s how it works.”
Defensive tackle Jon Bullard is the group’s leader, as the senior is putting together a special season. Bullard ranks third in the Southeastern Conference with 13 tackles for loss and has recorded five sacks despite being an interior lineman.
After Bullard moved from defensive end to defensive tackle in the offseason, his play is helping his draft stock. CBS Sports projects the North Carolina native to be selected within the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
“Once he got into it and bought in and he realized, you know what, ‘this is my home,’ I think he’s really feeling comfortable,” Gators defensive line coach Chris Rumph said of Bullard’s move to tackle. “He’s a veteran so he’s been around a lot of football and he’s starting to learn, the game is slowing down for him.”
It’s slowing down for some others, too.
Defensive ends Bryan Cox Jr. and McCalister are also playing at a high level. Cox has already recorded a career-high 7.5 tackles for loss this season, and McCalister is leading the team with 6.5 sacks this season.
McCalister’s jump from just being a part-time player last season has been impressive. The lanky 6-foot-6 junior had not made a collegiate start before this season, but he has already logged five starts this year.
With his 7-foot-2 wingspan, McCalister has been Florida’s top pass rusher this season. His best performance came against Vanderbilt on Saturday when he finished with 2.5 sacks to earn the SEC Defensive Player of the Week award.
“He always had that athleticism,” Morrison said of McCalister. “He’s finally realizing how long he is. He never knew how long he was before. He’s starting to realize if he puts his arm up, nobody is going to be able to touch him. He’s starting to realize that. That’s why he’s changed his production.”
But Florida’s depth on the defensive line could be tested against South Carolina on Saturday. Bullard is “highly questionable” for the game with an arm injury, defensive lineman Joey Ivie will miss the game with a leg injury, and defensive end Jordan Sherit will miss the first half of this week’s game after being called for a targeting penalty against Vanderbilt.
The injuries could translate into more reps for freshman CeCe Jefferson and redshirt freshman Khairi Clark.
But even if it has some no-shows, Florida’s defensive line is planning to throw another party in South Carolina on Saturday.
“We always try to prove we got a lot of depth,” Cox said. “We can do it with anybody. We’re just going to try and push forward.”