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Sophomore defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. is out to prove he can play with the best in the SEC.

Wednesday April 3, 2013Fowler Ready to Turn Talent Into Production for Gators

Sophomore defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. is out to prove he can play with the best in the SEC.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Dante Fowler Jr. reminded a group of reporters circled around him Tuesday what those who have seen Fowler play already knew.

“I’m not a kid anymore,’’ Fowler said.

Fowler’s remark was in response to a scribe who pointed out that this was the first time Fowler, a freshman last season, had spoken with the media since his days as a promising recruit at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg.

But Fowler could have easily used the same words to describe the way he played his first season at UF. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Fowler looked like he belonged physically from Day 1. By the end of the season, there was no doubt.

“He's an unbelievably gifted football player, and he's going to continue to get better and better,’’ Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “He's very coachable. He's always asking what else he can do, what he needs to do better. I think that guy has a really bright future ahead of him here.”

Fowler is one of the prized recruits landed by the Gators since Will Muschamp took over the program. Rated as one of the top defensive linemen prospects in the 2012 recruiting class, Fowler committed to Florida State and held steady for months.

However, when it was time to officially sign a scholarship, he turned his pen southeast of Tallahassee and signed with the Gators.

He was reminded of that decision loudly when the Gators visited Doak Campbell Stadium in November, defeating the Seminoles for their first win in the rivalry since 2009.

“It was crazy. That week going into and then pregame,’’ Fowler said. “They were saying all kinds of stuff. ‘We hate you, you’re this, you’re that, you’re a traitor.’ I was kind of mad but it really got me into the game and it got me ready to play, so I thank all of them for saying all that mean stuff.

“At the end of the day I chose the right place.”

Fowler played in every game last season and started one when buck Lerentee McCray was injured for the Missouri game. Fowler shined, sacking Tigers quarterback James Franklin once and registering a career-high five tackles in Florida’s 14-7 victory.

Fowler finished the season with 30 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. He was named a first-team Freshman All-American by CBSSports.com and made the SEC All-Freshman team selected by the league’s coaches.

Needless to say, Muschamp was pleased in getting Fowler to sign on the dotted line.

But once Fowler got to campus, he made an even bigger impression on Florida’s third-year head coach.

“Dante walks up to me every single day and says, ‘What can I do to get better?’ ’’ Muschamp said Tuesday. “And so it starts, to me, from a maturity standpoint of understanding what it takes to be successful. Because of a lot of guys they were a dominant player in high school, come to college and they've never had to work hard.”

In his quest to have a better sophomore season than his freshman one, Fowler said he dropped about 12 pounds to get quicker and improve his speed rush off the edge.

He also works regularly against Gators sophomore tackle D.J. Humphries, like Fowler, considered one of the top prospects at his position coming out of high school.

Their battles in practice are fierce but fun.

“Freshman year, me and Fowler were toe-to-toe every day,’’ Humphries said. “We made it a point in most of the drills to go against each. We pretty much go about even. Dante has a lot of moves. He’s a freak. He is getting better every day.”

Fowler and fellow sophomore Jonathan Bullard give the Gators one of the top one-two combos of young defensive linemen in the country.

Bullard is out of Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut spring practice with a hamstring injury. However, Fowler has spent the spring trying to parlay his freshman season into a breakout second year.

He said it took a while to feel comfortable last season but once he allowed his natural ability to take over he started to show why he was so highly coveted coming out of high school.

“When I first started playing I was a little slow because I didn't know all the plays,’’ he 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.

“Studying more and that's when I was able to play fast, because I knew everything and I had no worries or doubts.”

Now Fowler is ready to unleash his strength – “being a pass rusher” – on the rest of the SEC, which Fowler calls “a grown man’s league.” He is drawing on new lessons learned from first-year defensive line coach Brad Lawing, who tutored National Player of the Year candidate Jadeveon Clowney the past two seasons at South Carolina.

Fowler has watched film of Clowney and is trying to absorb as much of Lawing’s knowledge as he can.

“He’s helped with my pass rush a lot,” Fowler said. “There’s a lot of high expectations. I’m looking forward to living up to them.”

After all, he’s not a kid anymore. Fowler wants to prove he can play with the best in a grown man’s league.

 

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