GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Dante Fowler Jr. prepares to start his junior season at Florida, the story of his college career remains in the editing phase.
If there is a word Florida coach Will Muschamp wants erased from the manuscript, it’s that horrid P-word, one of Muschamp’s least favorite terms and one he prefers to get rid of as soon as possible after a player steps on campus.
Fowler has indeed shown it during his first two seasons. Remember Florida’s win over Tennessee last season? Rajion Neal and Nathan Peterman do.
Fowler was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his explosive performance in the Gators’ 31-17 victory over the Vols. He forced Neal and Peterman to fumble, finished with three tackles-for-loss and a sack.
The following Monday, discussing the most significant game of his UF career, Fowler provided his most memorable quote at UF as interest in his blossoming play reached an all-time high.
"I’m just a big, goofy, teddy bear,” Fowler said as reporters peppered him with questions about his soft-spoken demeanor. "I’m just nice to everybody."
The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Fowler does come across as a teddy bear off the field. He is approachable, quick with a smile and easy going.
His teammates see and hear a different Fowler once the game starts.
"Dante is not going to say much until he gets on the field, puts on his helmet, and he is going to show you the way he feels,” teammate Vernon Hargreaves III said. "You are going to feel him no matter where he’s at on the field. He is going to make an impact."
With the Gators coming off a 4-8 season, Muschamp and Co. are relying on regular contributions from the grizzly bear version of Fowler if the Gators are going to reverse their fortunes quickly.
Fowler finished with 50 tackles a season ago, including 10.5 TFLs. He also had 3.5 sacks, but with the size and speed of an elite rusher, everyone expects and wants more.
"We can all look at last year and say there were games where he played really, really well, was almost a dominant player,” Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said in the spring. "And there were games where that wasn’t there."
To his credit Fowler desires more, too.
He was reminded of that over the holidays as he sat home in St. Petersburg instead of preparing for a bowl trip with his teammates.
"That hurt,” he said. "It didn’t feel right."
To jumpstart his quest for improvement, Fowler made a New Year’s resolution: he erased Big Macs from his diet. He loves the burgers but not the calories and added weight that can slow his path to the quarterback.
A few pounds lighter in spring, a noticeably quicker Fowler impressed Muschamp.
"We need to create as many one-on-ones for Dante as we can,” Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. "I think he has a chance to have a great year."
Fowler is on several preseason watch lists and earned All-SEC second-team honors a season ago. He envisions a climb onto the first team in 2014.
He plans to help the Gators make a climb, too.
"What it takes for that next step is basically hard work and dedication,” Fowler said. "You have to take what you do seriously. You have to take football seriously. A lot of people’s demeanors are different.
"We are going to be the team to beat this year because I feel like we know we have that bad taste and that bad season last year nobody really expected. Those guys know the pain and I know nobody on this team wants to go back to that."
So, with the Gators set to report to camp on Sunday and open fall practice Monday, all eyes will be on No. 6. They know that for Florida to have a comeback season, Fowler most likely needs a breakout season.
He has made big strides in his first two seasons. There’s little doubt he is full of that P-word. However, there’s another P-word Muschamp is more interested in.
"He’s a guy that has matured over the years,” Muschamp said. "In order to be a leader, number one, you’ve got to be a productive player. He’s going to be a productive player and he has been a productive player for us.
"Certainly we will need his leadership moving into this year."