GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This was their plan all along. They talked about it before they ever signed on as teammates with the Gators. They remained steadfast when others tried to persuade them to change direction.
Back on the recruiting trail, when others told them they would be better off going somewhere the other wasn’t, sophomore defensive linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard tuned them out.
They knew as a tandem they were good enough to be labeled double trouble, dynamic duo or as Fowler revealed last week, Florida’s “Bash Brothers,” a self-anointed nickname they came up with over the summer.
“Those two guys aren’t afraid of anybody,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said.
Certainly not of each other.
Fowler and Bullard had options out of high school. Fowler was a Florida State commit until deciding to sign with the Gators in February 2012. Clemson and South Carolina had their eyes locked on Bullard.
They heard it all before deciding they wanted to be teammates at Florida.
“We had schools even throwing our names at each other,” Bullard said. “Coming in, we wanted to play with great players. I think he is a real good player and he has a lot of good attributes that are going to help me out.
“We looked at [signing as the same school] as a positive thing.”
So did Gators fullback Rhaheim Ledbetter, a teammate of Bullard’s at Crest Senior High in Shelby, N.C. Ledbetter and Bullard have been friends since elementary school. Their families are close, too.
They wanted to remain teammates in college. Ledbetter had a good idea of what that could mean for Florida’s defensive line if Fowler, who starred at St. Pete (Fla.) Lakewood High, also signed with the Gators.
“That duo right there is crazy,” Ledbetter said. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but after this year, I think a lot of people are going to realize what kind of duo that is going to be in the future.”
Florida fans got a glimpse of the Fowler-Bullard duo last season. Both played regularly as freshmen, providing energy, depth and as the season wore on, more and more big plays.
Fowler finished with 30 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks. Bullard started two games and finished with 27 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Both were named to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team.
As sophomores Fowler and Bullard will move into starting roles — Fowler at left defensive end and Bullard on the right side. Fowler can also play the BUCK position, a hybrid linebacker/end spot that specializes in rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.
“I actually like covering,” Fowler said. “Some people think I’m just a defensive lineman. Whenever I get out and cover, I take it really serious.”
First-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin sees a pair of emerging players that have the ability to help the Gators finish among the nation’s top defenses. Florida is one of five schools to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense the past two seasons.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Fowler has all the tools to be an elite pass rusher.
“He’s an impressive football player,” Durkin said. “He’s a rare mix of a guy his size that can move as well as he does and he plays really, really physical. And the great thing about Dante is he practices hard every single day.
“Every day you see him at meetings, on the field, he’s got a big smile on his face. He just loves competing, loves football, and he’s hungry. He’s one of the best guys to coach on the team. He takes coaching really well so a guy with that ability level that takes coaching, the sky’s the limit.”
Bullard (6-3, 270) has a little more bulk than Fowler and defends the run as well as he rushes the passer.
As a senior at Crest Senior — the same school that produced former Gators linebacker Brandon Spikes and NBA great David Thompson — Bullard and Ledbetter helped the Chargers to a state runner-up finish.
Ledbetter signed with the Gators as a defensive back and has moved to fullback. Having played with Bullard in middle school and high school, Ledbetter is not surprised as Bullard’s quick impact at Florida.
“His speed coming off the ball is just unbelievable,” Ledbetter said. “In high school, just put him on one side, and I’ll be happy to go to the other side. He would tell me, ‘I got it.’ He had it.”
Bullard and Fowler are now trying to form that kind of dominating presence for the Gators. Florida lost starting defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd, Lerentee McCray and Omar Hunter, but with senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley returning and Bullard and Fowler on the verge of breakout seasons, the defensive line projects as one of the Gators’ strengths.
“Two quality guys who have a huge upside as players,” Muschamp said.
As for that “Bash Brothers” nickname, Muschamp doesn’t know much about that. Fowler and Bullard came up with that one.
That’s nothing new. They have talked about their possibilities together for a long time. Regardless of what they do individually, Fowler and Bullard will continue to be lumped together.
They are fine with that, same as they never backed off from playing together when others told them they would be better off going their own way.
“We knew that coming in,” Bullard said. “We just try to go out and make something happen every play.”