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NFL draft decision paying off for Florida's Jonathan Bullard

Published Mar. 23, 2016

GAINESVILLE — Jonathan Bullard's decision to return to Florida for his senior year wasn't really much of a choice at all.

Bullard thought he might have been ready to become an NFL defensive lineman after his junior season, when he excelled on one of the best defenses in the country. Scouts disagreed.

While Bullard probably didn't like the feedback he heard last year, the harsh truth fueled his rise from an unspectacular prospect to a potential first-round pick in next month's NFL draft.

"When the NFL comes and tells you you're not good enough to be what you want to do for the rest of your life, that puts a chip on your shoulder," Bullard said. "So I used that chip, went in, worked hard and just proved that I'm one of the best D-linemen in the country."

Bullard had a chance to prove that he was one of the best pro prospects in the nation Tuesday when he and his teammates worked out in front of representatives from every NFL team during the Gators' pro day at their new indoor practice facility.

Bullard's growth and versatility justify the hype. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Bullard has started on the edge and in the interior. His tackles increased each season, from 27 as a true freshman to 66 last fall. He recorded 12 quarterback hurries as a junior to fuel his NFL dreams.

But Bullard learned this season that the success also blinded him to the work ethic he needed to develop.

"The first few years coming in I was a hard worker," Bullard said, "but I always had success since I got here, so that kind of slowed me down a little bit."

All he needed to speed back up was some muted feedback from the NFL.

Bullard returned with newfound motivation and dominated during his senior season. He earned All-America honors by CBS Sports and Pro Football Focus. His 171/2 tackles for loss were the most by a Gator since Alex Brown's 18 in 1999. His 61/2 sacks were tied for the team lead on a defense that carried the Gators to the SEC East title.

"What is there to say?" Gators coach Jim McElwain said. "The guy's a great player. Obviously had a great year for us, and I think really helped himself by coming back."

Bullard's decision also gives McElwain a clear success story to point to as future Gators weigh NFL options. Defensive lineman Caleb Brantley said Bullard's lucrative choice "definitely" played a role in his decision to return to UF this fall.

"He chose to come back and really surprised me," Brantley said. "He definitely helped himself. …"

While the financial gain is obvious — jumping from the middle rounds to the first round could be worth more than $4 million — another year of college helped Bullard grow as a person as he enters adult life and a pro career.

"Sometimes it's just a maturity thing," Bullard said.

Bullard admits he thinks about accomplishing his dream of being a first-round pick, but he doesn't plan to attend the draft in case he lasts into the second round. Regardless, Bullard said he's fortunate to be in this position — especially considering where his draft stock was a year ago.

"I'm going to be drafted so long as I stay healthy from here and now and that's a blessing to me," Bullard said. "Either way it goes I'm going to smile from ear to ear when I hear my name."

VH3 WATCH: Bucs defensive back coach Jon Hoke led the secondary drills — which happened to include UF cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a possible Bucs target with the No. 9 overall pick. Hargreaves, a Wharton High alum, said he hasn't talked much with Tampa Bay but has a meeting scheduled with the Bucs in about two weeks.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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