There was once a point in time when Florida wasn’t sure if it would have Dante Fowler Jr. or Jonathan Bullard on campus.
After months of promising-sounding comments usurped by vague quotes usurped by again positive statements, Fowler Jr. officially jumped into the Florida fold on Signing Day of 2012, after months of being committed to rival Florida State.
The five-star defensive lineman was a major coup for Will Muschamp and his staff, the perfect compliment to fellow five-star end Bullard, who had committed to Florida a month prior.
Four months after the letter-of-intents had been faxed in, the Gators were faced with yet another speed bump when Bullard was blocked from enrolling in summertime classes by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
After a month of rumor and speculation, Bullard was finally given the green light to enroll at Florida, just in time for the start of fall camp in August.
Florida’s defensive line was a known team strength heading into the 2012 campaign, with spots in the rotation already on short supply. However, it didn’t take long for both Fowler Jr. and Bullard to earn serious playing time despite their green status as freshmen.
“Football is really important to both of those guys,” Muschamp said of the now-sophomores on Tuesday. “I mean, extremely important.”
By last season’s end, the fearless freshmen had combined for three starts, 57 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks and two first-team SEC All-Freshman Team nods.
With their immense size ( Fowler Jr. listed at 6’3 263, and Bullard at 6’3 265), coupled with natural born talent, the youngsters’ ability to see the field and produce immediate results wasn’t a far-fetched notion.
However, according to Muschamp, it’s the two players’ work ethic which separates them from similarly skilled peers.
“Dante walks up to me every single day and says ‘what can I do to get better?’” Muschamp said. “[Fowler Jr. and Bullard] work extremely hard at being good football players … you can walk in the weight room and you see how they work, you walk on our practice field and you see how they work. They’ve got tremendous work ethic away from just having good talent.”
Fowler Jr. said he learned quite a bit during his first season in Gainesville, but he continually harped on the need to improve when he spoke on Tuesday. Fowler Jr. said his strength is rushing the passer, something he learned a lot about last year, but is learning even more this spring with a new coach who specializes in the department.
“I think that’s my strength being a pass rusher,” Fowler Jr. said. “Learning from DQ [Dan Quinn] and now Coach [Brad] Lawing especially. He coached Jadeveon [Clowney] and Melvin Ingram, two players I look up to a lot.”
“He’s helped me with my pass rushing a lot and correcting a lot of things. I’m just learning and trying to get better at it.”
Fowler Jr. said he continues to train at both the BUCK and defensive end positions this spring, a responsibility that’s forced him to shore up other areas of his game besides simply rushing the passer.
“It’s a grown man’s game,” Fowler Jr. said. “So, I wanted to get stronger in my upper body being able to play the run well. Learn the game more, be a smarter person. Just knowing what to do and what not to do. Not being a little rookie anymore, just being more mature.”
A part of Fowler Jr.’s maturity process this offseason has been shedding the excess weight he came to UF with. While the additional girth may have helped him look more daunting to opposing linemen, the extra pounds admittedly slowed him down.
“I was a little bit overweight as a Buck,” Fowler Jr. said. “I was playing around 275, 277. I shed a couple pounds this offseason. I’m like 265 now. I just want to be able to play fast and shed some of that baby fat that I have. Just being able to be in shape so I can play almost every down.”
Fowler Jr.’s transformation was easily noticeable during Florida’s open practice sessions in March. The St. Petersburg native moved around Florida’s offensive line fluidly and showed he hadn’t lost any strength either, running over opposing blockers as well.
“Dante, he’s a freak now,” offensive tackle D.J. Humphries said.
Like Fowler Jr. and Bullard, Humphries was a highly touted freshman for UF entering last season, and also like his classmates, he quickly proved he was ready to handle the heavy workload the SEC provides on a week-to-week basis.
According to Humphries, going against his defensive counterparts has helped prepare him for the physical and speedy defensive lines the SEC has built its reputation on.
“Freshman year, me and Fowler were toe-to-toe every day,” Humphries said. “We made it a point in most of the drills for me and him go against each other. Me, him and Bullard against each other in all the drills.”
Humphries said the familiarity with Fowler Jr. has created a number of stalemates in their one-on-one battles, but seeing Fowler Jr.’s array of moves has helped him create a number of useful counters. When asked what impresses him the most about Fowler Jr. and Bullard, Humphries echoed Muschamp’s’ earlier sentiment about their maturity levels.
“They feel like the older guys but they’re just as young as I am,” Humphries said.
One reason for the duo’s vast maturity may be the time spent around their defensive cohorts from last season. The Gators flashed a talented and veteran group in 2012, a facet Fowler Jr. says rubbed off on him and his classmate.
“It was fun and a big experience going out there and playing with Jelani [Jenkins] and [Dominique] Easley and Sharrif [Floyd],” Fowler Jr. said.
“Powie (Ronald Powell), that’s like my big brother. I look up to him. He talks to me a lot. He just tries to coach me up any time he can … it’s going to be real fun playing with him too. When both of us are out there, it’s going to blast going after the quarterbacks.”
While Powell’s injury last year keeps him in Gainesville for another season, the Gators still lost a lot from last year’s rotation, including the all-American Floyd, as well as senior stalwarts Omar Hunter and Lerentee McCray.
However, Fowler Jr. seems to be confident in Florida’s returning rotation.
“It’s going to be really important with Sharrif gone,” Fowler Jr. said. “It’s going to be really important because that’s what our strength was, being able to stop the run.
“The d-line looks really good. We have Powell coming back, Ease (Easley), John-John (Bullard), Damien [Jacobs], Leon [Orr], Darius [Cummings] and some more incoming freshmen. So we’re looking really good.”
A year older and wiser, Fowler Jr. is focused on making every effort to play at a rapid pace this season.
“There was a point when I first started playing where I was a little slow, because I didn’t know all the plays,” Fowler Jr. said.
“I was scared for Coach Muschamp to get on me and things like that. I really wasn’t able to play fast and then towards the South Carolina game, I started to go in and watch a lot of film trying to get better … that’s when I really started to play fast and make all of my plays.”
After his roller coaster of a recruitment last season, Fowler Jr. had the date the Gators traveled to Florida State circled on his calendar. The Seminole fans had been miffed with his defection, and took to message boards and various social platforms to voice their displeasure.
Ahead of the game, Fowler Jr. said the words coming from the FSU fan base weren’t exactly encouraging. Some of the gems hurled his way: “We hate you. You’re this, you’re that. You’re a traitor,” he said.
However, if there were any questions concerning his decision, they were answered after Florida’s 37-26 victory. Fowler Jr. may have toggled back and forth with his decision initially, but there’s no doubting his selection now.
“At the end of the day, I chose the right place,” he said.