Florida looks for ramped-up pass rush

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s pass rush pretty much disappeared when Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham left the program after the 2009 season.

Production dipped the following season by nearly half. UF had 21 sacks in 2010, 28 in 2011, and 30 last season -- well below the 40 the Gators had in 2009. Though the numbers have climbed in the past two years, the Gators haven’t been able to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback.

That’s about to change -- theoretically, anyway.

With the expected return of buck Ronald Powell and the development of sophomore buck Dante Fowler Jr., and defensive end Jonathan Bullard, the Gators should have their best pass-rushing group since '09.

“We’re going to get our best rushers out there,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “Big guys that run out of gas are done. You’ve got to get as much speed on the field as you can.”

That begins with Powell, who missed the 2012 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in the spring game. His attempt to return by October was thwarted when he suffered a second tear during his rehab in September. Muschamp had raved about Powell throughout the spring before his injury and said he appeared ready to become an elite player.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Powell, who had 6.0 sacks as a sophomore, did not participate in spring practice but is expected to be cleared for full-contact work in August. If he returns to the level at which he was before his injury it’s not unreasonable to expect 8 to 10 sacks out of the redshirt junior, who will be the starter at strongside linebacker.

With Powell out of the lineup in 2012, the Gators were forced to rely on freshmen Fowler and Bullard. They combined for four sacks and eight quarterback hurries, including Bullard’s team-high seven -- not bad for freshmen, but neither was anywhere close to being an elite rusher.

However, the experience they gained was invaluable. The 6-3, 270-pound Bullard and the 6-3, 265-pound Fowler followed that up with a solid offseason in the weight room and on the practice field.

As a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, Fowler has multiple rushing and coverage responsibilities, and Muschamp said he has made strides in each area.

“Dante’s had a really good spring,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that really worked hard in the pass rush. Brad has done a really nice job of developing a solid move and a counter off of that. That’s something he needs to continue to refine over the summer. Played the runs well, strong at the point of attack. He’s got good initial quickness. He’s a really good athlete.”

Fowler sometimes didn’t play that way last season, mainly because he felt overwhelmed at times.

“There was a point when I first started playing where I was a little slow, because I didn’t know all the plays,” Fowler said. “I was scared for Coach Muschamp to get on me and things like that. I really wasn’t able to play fast, and then toward the South Carolina game, I started to go in and watch a lot of film trying to get better. That’s when I was able to play fast, because I knew everything and I had no worries or doubts.

“I just want to be able to play fast and shed some of that baby fat that I had. Just being able to be in shape, so I can play almost every down. I feel like I’ve got more acceleration. I have more wind, so I’m not getting as tired as I used to.”

He has certainly impressed left tackle D.J. Humphries, who had the job of blocking Fowler every day in spring practice.

“Dante, he’s a freak now,” Humphries said. “He’s getting better every day.”

Bullard dealt with a minor hamstring injury in the spring, but showed when he was healthy that he was going to have no problem getting to the quarterback.

“[Bullard] had a great offseason,” Muschamp said. “He’s changed his body. He’s gotten a lot stronger.”

A wild card in the Gators’ pass rush is Dominique Easley. The 6-2, 285-pound senior was supposed to be the starting defensive end, but a lack of depth at tackle -- as well as Bullard’s development -- has him starting the season at tackle. He has 5.5 career sacks.

Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have more options now than last season and can tinker with the lineup. Powell can play buck and strongside linebacker. Fowler can play both, too, as well as defensive end. If needed, Bullard could play inside.

Redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball also can play the buck.

“To get our best guys on the field is a lengthy discussion we’ve had as a defensive staff,” Muschamp said. “Certainly Ronald, we feel like’s going to be one of those guys. Neiron Ball is another guy who has done some really nice things for us and played well. Darrin Kitchens’ development as an inside linebacker enables that move to happen and he played extremely well throughout the spring for us.

“All of those kind of mingled together, you feel comfortable how [the pass rush] is shaping up at this time.”