The 2014 Gators are on a mission. Last season was unacceptable in Gainesville and you’ll hear those exact words from Will Muschamp throughout his summer speaking tour.
Florida’s road won’t be easy with trips to Knoxville, Tuscaloosa and an end of the season date with the reigning national champions and the current Heisman Trophy winner. The road isn’t easy but it’s what the Gators have grown accustomed to and they’ll need to weather the storm to save Muschamp’s job.
With a younger team heading into this season, Florida will need to rely on players stepping into new leadership roles. This change will put more pressure on a few players who we’ll spotlight this week as the five that have the most pressure on their shoulders this season.
After getting things going with Austin Hardin and Andre Debose, we switch to the defensive side of the ball and perhaps the most important player on Will Muschamp’s defense, Dante Fowler Jr.
Overview: Fowler’s flip from Florida State to Florida on National Signing Day was sweet for Gator fans. Not only had they taken away a recruit from their instate rival, but they had taken away a great player, someone who could contribute right away. That’s exactly what Fowler did.
Fowler wrapped up his freshman campaign with 30 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks and one quarterback hurry. Fowler played in every game for the Gators and quickly became a nightmare for offensive linemen using his speed and quickness to beat them off the edge.
Fowler followed his first year up with a stellar sophomore season. He finished the year with 50 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 35 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, seven quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
Heading into his junior season, Fowler stands to make a lot of money after this year if he can continue to progress, stay healthy and forego his senior season to go to the NFL.
Why is he so important?
His freshman season, Fowler was a role player. He would come in situationally — mainly as a rusher in passing situations — but he had a lot of help on the defensive line. With Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley demanding extra attention and double teams, Fowler was given one-on-one situations where his speed could be used to make less athletic offensive tackles look slow on the edge.
Last season he had Easley, for three games, commanding double teams and attention down low. However, Fowler was able to keep his production level high after Easley’s injury, despite becoming the focus of each offensive line he went up against every Saturday.
His junior season will be more of the same. Fowler doesn’t have his old running mates to create favorable situations for him in the trenches, he will have a bullseye on his chest every week and teams will scheme ways to stop him.
The extra attention comes from being the best player on the defensive line; it’s also where the pressure comes from. Without other All-SEC type of players next to him Fowler needs to take his game to the next level if Florida’s production on defense is to remain the same as it has been under Will Muschamp.
It all starts up front for the defense and up front begins and ends with how disruptive Fowler can be.
Can he live up to the pressure?
This is tough. His performance after Dominique Easley went down last season was strong. Fowler put up career highs in tackles (8 vs. Georgia Southern) and sacks (2 vs. Kentucky) without Easley in the lineup.
This is also a huge year for Fowler if he wants to make an early exit and head to the NFL. He has the tools and is talented enough to make the jump but will need a solid junior campaign.
Fowler will have guys like Jon Bullard, Darious Cummings, Leon Orr and Jay-nard Bostwick around him but are any of those guys the caliber of player that Floyd or Easley were? No.
After playing sidekick for his first two seasons, Fowler is thrust into the spotlight as a junior. Florida needs him to be a leader on and off the football field and he’s slowly growing into that role.