Dante Fowler Jr. traded Big Macs for quarterbacks as his New Year’s resolution.
Nearly nine months without McDonald’s, he’s hungry, and the all-conference defensive end stands as Florida’s special ingredient to improve last season’s anemic pass rush.
In 2013, the Gators’ defense ranked eighth nationally, yet Florida struggled to get to the quarterback and finished next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference in sacks (19) and tackles for loss (61).
Enter an invigorated Fowler: a meaner and leaner version ready to emerge as an All-American talent and Florida’s first double-digit sacker since 2006.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Fowler is definitely an impact player,” senior linebacker Michael Taylor said.
“When NCAA [video game] comes out this year he should have a star. He is definitely making an impact every day, doing something whether it’s pass rushing or stopping the run, he’s always going to make an impact by some kind of way. You expect that from Dante.”
EA Sports NCAA Football no longer exists, but opponents remain quite familiar with Fowler, who led Florida with 10 1/2 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles last year.
The junior — who also added 3 1/2 sacks and seven quarterback hurries — anchored UF’s front seven following Dominique Easley’s season-ending knee injury, but Fowler’s production slowly slipped as expectations grew.
The hybrid end all but disappeared in defeats to LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU, failing to register a single tackle for loss as offensive lines schemed around him.
The coaching staff expected more.
So did Fowler.
“I view myself as one of the team leaders,” he said.
“One of [those] guys that give great effort and advice to the young guys or anybody. Anything going on, I want to be that type of guy, just solid at everything. I’m still learning how to become a leader, still maturing and things like that. So I’m learning myself, too.”
This offseason, Fowler was challenged to improve his body, practice habits and leadership.
He answered the bell.
“Noticeably different,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said of Fowler’s transformation.
“I’ve been proud of Dante about the way he’s practiced. He’s been very consistent with his effort and how hard he’s going, and it’s showing. He’s getting better and improving.”
The 6-3, 261-pounder is a genial character off the field, but between the lines his nonstop motor has been just as contagious.
The menacing edge rusher, among the most highly regarded 2015 draft-eligible prospects, has terrorized UF’s first-team offensive line during training camp, demanding constant double-teams and giving other guys an opportunity to shine.
“Everybody is going to slide the protection toward No. 6,” sophomore end Bryan Cox Jr. explained.
“We have to have guys who can win one-on-one battles. When you slide the line there are going to be one-on-one battles on the other end. We have to have guys come along and contribute.”
Cox Jr., along with Jon Bullard, Alex McCalister and freshman Gerald Willis comprise a defense front with plenty of promise but minimal production.
That’s set to change, Fowler said.
“Good things are going to happen if everybody does their jobs,” he said.
Added defensive tackle Darious Cummings: “We’ve got a lot of guys who were in the shadows last year who are really sprouting this year.”
Fowler is already a budding star, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to lead a renewed pass-rushing unit in Saturday’s opener against the Idaho — the worst pass-protecting team in the country in 2013 (nation-high 53 sacks).