GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Caleb Brantley is looking to be one of the next Florida defensive linemen to stand on stage with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The Gators have produced three consecutive first-round selections from their D-line, and tackle Jonathan Bullard is expected to make it four in a row in this year’s draft.
Brantley considered turning pro after the 2015 season, but chose to return and chase his first-round ambitions.
“I think I’m the best D-lineman in the country,” he said. “I’m coming out to try and prove it.”
The redshirt junior started 10 of the 13 games he played last fall, earning Second Team All-America honors from Pro Football Focus and finishing with 29 tackles and three sacks.
With Bullard gone, Brantley is Florida’s top returning defensive tackle and has shown it over the past few months.
“I’ve been really happy with Caleb Brantley in the front,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “I think Jon Bullard did a great job of kind of teaching him what it is to be that person. So far he’s been really good this offseason.”
Brantley spent his first three years in Gainesville trying to become a consistent player and full-time starter. With that role now established, his new focus is getting a handle on the torch Bullard passed down to him.
“He taught me how to be a leader,” Brantley said. “Just be a role model to the younger guys and always do stuff right. You can’t be the guy that coaches look to if you’re messing up. I’m just trying to lead by example. Do all the little stuff, like having your shirt tucked in.”
One of Brantley’s qualities is being an unselfish player. While he’s a disruptive force for Florida because of his quick first step and ability to jump the snap, that doesn’t always show up in the box score.
“When you’re inside there’s 650 pounds of SEC offensive linemen trying to get after you. Caleb Brantley last year took a lot of double teams,” Gators defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “Sometimes the stress is going to be on Caleb Brantley getting doubled. But he understands … that’s when the magic happens.”
Brantley often demands multiple blockers, which frees up other defenders to make plays. This usually keeps him from leading the Gators in sacks or tackles for loss, but Brantley doesn’t care if his stats aren’t reflective of his impact.
“It is frustrating, but at the same time I can’t be selfish,” he said. “If you’re good, you’re going to get double-teamed nine times out of 10. It’s a chance for other guys to step up. I’m not the only one on the D-line that’s a hell-raiser.
“You’ve got CeCe Jefferson, Bryan Cox, Taven Bryan. I love our whole D-line. Pick your poison. We’ve got some guys that can get to the passer.”
Perhaps none do it better than Brantley. He was virtually unblockable Wednesday during Florida’s first spring practice in full pads.
“He’s definitely become a grown man for that defensive line,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “When it’s time for somebody to block him, good luck. That man knows what he wants and he’s not going to be stopped.”