GAINESVILLE -- Dante Fowler is going to playing for Florida this season, and he’s going to play a lot.
In his first fall camp, the freshman is working at coach Will Muschamp’s heralded Buck linebacker position, a hybrid of outside linebacker and defensive end. He has turned heads, both those of the offensive tackles he blows past and of the coaches and teammates he continues to impress.
“He had the right mind-set of he was determined to play this year,” said senior right guard Jon Halapio, who has known Fowler since the freshman was in middle school. “Honestly, I didn’t think he was going to perform how he’s performing now. It’s really good to see that he’s been working hard, even in the summer.”
At Florida’s open practice Saturday, Fowler was the clear standout on defense during 11-on-11 team drills, making a home for himself in the offensive backfield. He was in position to sack the quarterback on multiple occasions, easily beating the tackle opposite him, with only a red noncontact jersey preventing a massive blow.
The five-star recruit from St. Petersburg Lakewood was a surprise signing-day grab for Florida after he had originally committed to rival Florida State in early 2011. Fowler reportedly spurned the Seminoles over issues with the depth chart, and there are those who would say they are surprised Fowler has progressed so quickly at Florida given his past.
The talented defensive end was suspended for multiple games during his senior season at Lakewood after he got into an argument with coaches following the team’s first game of the season. Coaches were not happy with Fowler improvising on his own after being double-teamed all night; Fowler got a sack on the play, and disagreed with his coaches.
“It was tough,” Lakewood coach Cory Moore told the Tampa Bay Times. “You always hate to take away from somebody something that they love. But you have to look at the big picture. Maybe this is something he will reflect on when he gets older.”
Fowler wanted the freedom to roam around and make plays at Lakewood, something Moore’s scheme didn’t support. At Florida, he’s doing just that. The Buck position is a dream come true for Fowler, and it’s showing in his play.
“He hasn’t changed one bit, besides his body,” Halapio said. “He’s still a little kid at heart. I’m definitely happy he’s up here. We’ll see where it goes from there.”
Florida finished sixth in the Southeastern Conference with 28 sacks last season. But the Gators struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback without blitzing and had only two total sacks in consecutive losses to Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Fowler should help change that this season, but Muschamp is remaining cautiously optimistic.
Fowler needs to get his weight down a bit, Muschamp said, and learn how to manage the day-to-day grind of classes, practice and game preparation without becoming overwhelmed.
“They’re going to have a lot on their plate,” Muschamp said. “That’s where sometimes you’ll see a freshman hit the wall, and it all hits them.”
With incumbent starter Ronald Powell still recovering from an ACL injury he sustained during the spring and backup Lerentee McCray missing practice with an ailing hamstring, Fowler has been receiving the bulk of the first-team reps. Muschamp said his performance has been enough to warrant significant playing time this season even when McCray and Powell return to health.
“Dante Fowler is going to play at that position as a freshman,” Muschamp said.
“Bottom line, at the end of the end of the day, the guys who are being productive will continue to play.