Duke Dawson takes a look around the locker room just minutes before his fourth and final spring football camp with the Florida Gators. He’s taking it all in because a few short months ago he didn’t think he’d be here.
Dawson was the first player to commit to the Gators in 2014 and he enrolled early that spring semester. He came in with Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson soon followed. The three of them helped continue the “DBU” tradition at Florida and, if they were all being honest, would say they all expected to play three years at UF before heading for the NFL. Tabor and Wilson made that move after the season.
“Coming in, I knew Teez was a top recruit, Quincy was a top recruit, we all were top recruits but when you come in with guys like that you have to compete everyday. There’s no day that you can really take off,” Dawson told Gator Country in an exclusive interview. “With us three, we always pushed each other harder to do this or do that. We see differences in each other, things that we needed to work on with each other. It was just that brotherhood that we had and that really played a huge part in what we had going on here.”
Making a decision to leave school early can’t be based on what your teammates and friends do. It’s a personal decision that a player must make with their family and for themselves. With that being said, Dawson came into his junior season knowing that it was a strong possibility for him.
Dawson burst onto the scene in his first career game with a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. He played in 11 games as a freshman during the 2014 season but the coaching staff bounced him back and forth between corner, nickel and safety. He ultimately settled in at safety but when Will Muschamp was fired, Jim McElwain and his coaching staff didn’t view Dawson as a safety. He returned to nickelback but was stuck behind Brian Poole. Dawson played in every game but in a limited role. When Poole graduated he knew the 2016 season would be his opportunity to prove himself.
That started in the spring game last year. Dawson intercepted Feleipe Franks and returned it for a touchdown. He stepped into the starting role at nickel and led the team with seven passes broken up. He intercepted one pass that he returned for a touchdown. All-in-all it was Dawson’s most productive season in Orange and Blue.
“The only bad part of the season I had was against Tennessee, everything else was fine for me,” he said of his junior season. “I mean everyone is going to have those games. I didn’t let that hinder me or put me down in a hole. I just pushed forward and kept a level head.”
As the season came to an end Dawson submitted paperwork to the NFL to see where he would be projected in the upcoming NFL Draft. He played in the Outback Bowl and then sat down with his family and the coaching staff. Dawson was given a mid-round grade, which he could improve on with a good senior season. However, Dawson also watched Poole earn a starting role with the Atlanta Falcons and go on to start in the Super Bowl as an undrafted free agent.
“It came back good but not as good as I wanted it to be and I felt like I was better than what I was predicted,” Dawson told Gator Country about his draft grade.
It was a hard decision, one he needed to rely on those closest to him to make.
“It came back good but not as good as I wanted it to be and I felt like I was better than what I was predicted so this offseason, I’m going to train hard and I know there’s going to be good things ahead of me,” Dawson said. “I really didn’t look at it any other way. I know that I can improve a lot on my game as well and I feel like that’s something that I’m really going to do.”
His decision to come back to Florida wasn’t just about his draft grade. Coming back to Florida will open the opportunity for Dawson to become a leader and, finally, the face of the Gators’ defense. He’s one of a handful of seniors that will return to the team in 2017 and the most proven of the bunch. He’ll also get the opportunity to continue showcasing his versatility, something that will help make him valuable to NFL teams in 2018.
“The only thing I really need to put on tape is outside,” Dawson said of his desire to showcase more of what he can do. “(NFL teams) have seen that I can play inside and safety. That’s something that is already sealed. That’s something that I want to do outside. I need to work this offseason to perfect my craft on being that elite corner.”
Dawson will get that opportunity right away. McElwain plans to utilize Dawson’s experience and skillset outside right away as the Gators get spring camp underway.
“He’ll be corner full-time,” McElwain said of Dawson. “Obviously his ability to play nickel is only something that is not only going to help us but help him in the future as it did Brian Poole. I think his ability to be able to show all that stuff is going to do nothing more than strengthen our depth, help the Gators get better and help him personally.”
Dawson is a quiet person. He’s not a vocal leader but he leads by example and he tries to take younger players under his wing privately. Dawson recalled talking with Chauncey Gardner. He recognized the freshman’s ability early on. He also, as everyone has, heard Gardner, who is one of the more outspoken players on the team. He implored Gardner to listen to the older players, listen to his coaches and take to heart what they’re saying to him.
“I sat Chauncey down and we talked and I just told him the only thing you have to do is listen,” Dawson told Gator Country. “If you listen, it will take you a long way and do less talking and that’s what he did and you see him shine in the bowl game.”
Taking that kind of mentorship role is something Dawson takes pride in. he genuinely wants the younger players to succeed and he wants to be a part of their success. He also has goals for his senior year. Dawson wrote them out on a piece of paper that hangs on the wall in his room. It’s a daily visual reminder of what he wants to accomplish and the magnitude of the goals ensures that he gives his all in every aspect of training and school.
“First off, I want to get my education,” he said. “Then I want to be a first team All-American and first rounder. Those are my personal goals. I want to lead people the right way and I want to show people the ropes.”
Dawson spent his first three seasons in the shadow of players like Tabor, Wilson, Poole, Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves. This season, his final in Gainesville, won’t be the same. He’s the face of a defense that has been one of the best in the country for the better part of the decade and he’s ready to leave his mark on the program.
“A lot of people don’t really look at it and take advantage of the opportunities they have,” he said. “I have laid down in bed and thought, dang man, the Michigan game is in less that four months. It’s really coming fast right now. I just want to cherish every moment and enjoy my senior season.”