ORLANDO — Jonathan Bullard’s senior season ended on a subdued note — three tackles, no sacks or tackles for loss and a 41-7 drubbing from Michigan.
But this season, that type of performance was the exception.
Last year, it would have been closer to the norm.
It wasn’t that the defensive lineman didn’t play well last season — he did. Bullard notched 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks while playing alongside Dante Fowler Jr., the star of the team.
In fact, he was considered a prospect who would likely be taken in one of the early rounds of the NFL Draft.
But he was just a solid player, not an elite talent.
Bullard knew he could do better.
And he was right.
"I think it’s the best decision I made in my life," Bullard said about returning to school for his final season at Florida.
"I’m playing the best ball I’ve played since I’ve been here."
In 2015, the senior recorded 66 tackles, led the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and shared the team lead with 6.5 sacks.
He was named to the AP All-American third team and is projected by many to have a good shot at being drafted in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft.
He also became one of the signature voices in the midst of a regime change, stepping up to become one of the primary leaders on a team laying the foundation of the program for years to come.
All of that came with another year of experience and maturity, but it also took the type of work and dedication few are willing to give in his situation.
"The things that he did in the offseason, the things that he did throughout the year to make himself one of the best players in college football," defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said, "you don’t see guys do that a lot."
Had Bullard left last year, he would likely have been remembered as a talented player who had a good career.
He would have been one of the players who fans would have had to take a few minutes trying to recall when they heard the player’s familiar — but not instantly recognizable — name.
But now, he’ll be remembered as one of the players who paved the way for future Florida teams, someone who left all he had on the field for the good of the program and who helped lead Florida to its first SEC Championship game appearance since 2009.
And in the process, he might be the school’s next NFL star.
Follow Graham Hack on Twitter @graham_hack24