JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars hope Dante Fowler Jr. will tear up the NFL like he tore up his parents’ lawn while growing up.
Years before becoming the first defensive player drafted Thursday night, Fowler and his brothers Donterio and Cam’Ron would regularly take part in a series of footwork drills under the watchful eye of their father, who was a running back at the junior college level.
"I tore my back yard up. I tore my front yard up too," Dante Fowler Sr. said Saturday, beaming proudly while his oldest son fielded questions from reporters familiar with his three-year career at Florida as a combination defensive end and outside linebacker.
By the time Fowler began the 10th grade at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, it became clear that his future was much brighter on defense than offense. With the help of his position coach Mike Moten, a former Gator defensive standout himself, he started progressing on a path that would turn him into a five-star recruit and an honorable mention All-American.
"I always wanted to play running back," Fowler said. "But I had to be real with myself."
Those dreams of being a running back were reflected in the jersey number Fowler chose (56) for the Jaguars. He said the first digit was for his first idol, Reggie Bush, and the second was in honor of former Florida State and Jaguars star Greg Jones.
But after being chosen third overall behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the Jaguars want to see him utilize those footwork skills to haul down running backs and pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"That’s why I think the way I play and sometimes the way I move is kind of an advantage over the big guys, because they’re not used to a guy who can move like that who’s so big," said Fowler, who went from 3 1/2 sacks as a sophomore to 8 1/2 as a junior.
Although his jersey number was worn last season by linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, who has agreed to wear No. 52 by the time training camp begins, that doesn’t mean the Jaguars are abandoning plans to line him up as an end. Far from it. Even after getting a combined 17 1/2 sacks from Chris Clemons, Andre Branch and Ryan Davis last season, they found the need to upgrade their edge rush so pressing that they passed on at least two other highly-regarded draft prospects (Leonard Williams and Amari Cooper) to take Fowler.
"I consider myself a versatile player, but whatever they want me to play, I’ll play," he said. "If they need me to stay at end, I’ll do that. If they need me to play linebacker, I’ll do that. I’m a team guy, a guy that just wants to come in and work and compete."
Fowler’s mother and father accompanied him to Chicago for the draft as well as to Jacksonville. Lanora Fowler, an intensive care unit nurse and a self-described workaholic, became the family’s primary money-earner while her husband concentrated on football.
"When I first met her, she didn’t like football," he said. "She was asking, ‘Why do you watch football all day long?’ And I was like, ‘Eventually you’re going to learn too.’"
The two of them have also become the primary child-raisers of Fowler’s son, Dante III, who turns 4 next month.
"Just being able to have my family come up to my games, every home game, and knowing that they’re going to be here … if there ever was a problem and they needed to come up, it’s not a problem," he said. "It all worked out good."
Fowler stood out among the prospects gathered in Chicago because of his white-on-white suit complete with gold shoes which ran well into four figures. He admitted he’s into fashion and has noticed what players at the NFL and NBA drafts have worn to create a splash.
But he made it clear that on the field, glitz takes a back seat to grit.
"At the end of the day, I’m a regular person," he said. "I’m not going to let this football player imitation get the whole perception of me. I’m Dante. I’m a guy that’s outgoing, and that’s nice and very genuine. But when it’s time to play, it’s a different story."
And while his son has a rookie minicamp less than a week away, Dante Fowler Sr. has an even more immediate and pressing concern.
"I can’t wait to get some rest," he said. "The phone’s been ringing off the hook."