GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.
Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.
"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."
The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.
It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.
Since Muschamp's first season with the Gators in 2011, when a sophomore named Ronald Powell led the team with six sacks, the pass rush has been anemic. Dominique Easley led the team with four sacks in 2012. Powell led UF last season with four as well.
In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.
Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.
He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.
"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him.
"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."
Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.
"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."
Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.
"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.
"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."
Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?
Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.
"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."
The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.
"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."
Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.
"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."
Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.
"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."
Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.