Florida Gators sophomore Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr. has received his fair share of praise this week – and for good reason.
Athlon Sports and the Southeastern Conference both named Fowler their Defensive Player of the Week on Monday, two days after a breakout performance that garnered some national attention but no respect on the highlight shows. Late Thursday, ESPN awarded him its All-America of the Week honor.
“It feels good. It’s a blessing being able to be named SEC Player of the Week. There’s a lot of great players in the SEC, especially defensive players, to being able to stand out and come on top and be SEC Player of the Week is an honor,” he said on Monday.
Last Saturday in Florida’s 31-17 victory over Tennessee, Fowler forced two fumbles (recovering the first in arguably the Gators’ highlight defensive play of the season) and registered three tackles for loss including the only sack of the game.
Fowler’s first forced fumble came early in the first quarter with the Vols down on the Gators’ 13-yard line following a muffed punt by junior Kyle Christy. On 2nd-and-8, he steamed past the right tackle, saw daylight and ruined a handoff to UT running back Rajion Neal. Then he admittedly did something stupid.
“It was a play that I was supposed to chase,” Fowler explained. “So when I saw that the tackle blocked down … I was like, ‘Oh snap, I’m gonna blow it up.’
“He fumbled the ball and I picked it up. A lot of things were running through my head. It was the second play of the game. It was a sold out crowd.
“I actually like spiked the ball down and then I thought about it like, ‘Oh snap, I’m gonna get a personal foul.’ It was fun. I actually sat down on the bench and I was like, ‘Dang, did that just happen?’ My first forced fumble, but it was all good.”
Fowler put fear into the visitors’ hearts again on Tennessee’s next offensive series, this time giving Florida (down 7-0 late in the first quarter) great field position. The Vols attempted a pass on 3rd-and-9 at their own 12-yard line, but Fowler busted through the line and strip-sacked quarterback Nathan Peterman for his second forced fumble.
Peterman returned on the next series but left in the second quarter and was eventually diagnosed with an injured right hand. He had surgery on Tuesday and will miss four weeks. Fowler never realized that UT even changed its quarterback.
“I didn’t even know he didn’t make it until halftime,” he said. “I thought he played the whole game. … I really don’t care what quarterback is in the game; I just want to hit them.”
Though head coach Will Muschamp said Monday that he’d “like for [Fowler] to know who the quarterback is” on the field at any given time, he was happy to let that slide considering how well he played on Saturday.
Fowler explained that he had some extra motivation because he believed he played poorly at Miami on Sept. 7, a game in which he still registered two quarterback hurries and three total tackles, including one for lost yardage.
“[I was] just not being in my groove, not feeling right. Being able to play fast and stuff like that, I take that very seriously,” he said. “We lost the game and I had a bitter taste I my mouth, and I felt like I could have done some things that could have prevented us from losing that game. I just wanted to come out and have a better game than Miami and just play fast and how Dante is supposed to be able to play.”
Senior defensive back Jaylen Watkins appreciated his teammate having that mindset. “From that first play, I knew with the fumble that he caused that he was angry about his play last week. That was a great way to respond, causing two forced fumbles in the game,” he said.
Added redshirt junior Sam LB Ronald Powell: “It’s good to see Fowler, definitely like a brother to me, to see him out there playing fast. It’s good to see.”
With senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley now sidelined for the remainder of the 2013 season, Fowler will be counted on more than before to bring his explosive playmaking mindset to the field each week.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin believes he is up to the task.
“It was great; Dante really let it loose. That was more indicative of what we feel like we can see from him every week,” he said. “I just think he kind of, at times, took over the game a little bit and dominated the line of scrimmage.
“He has that ability. I think he’s just scratching the surface for what he can do and he’s starting to realize it. So we’re going to keep pushing him and coaching him like crazy and trying to get that out of him.”
Easley said he was not surprised to see Fowler’s production, much of which he credited back to Easley for being so disruptive inside that it gave him the space to make plays. Easley brushed off the credit but did playfully call Fowler a “big baby” and “one big kid” for how jovial he is inside the locker room.
On Monday, Fowler discussed how hungry he was at halftime and said he needed to go in the tunnel and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before coming back out for the final 30 minutes. Food was also on his mind when he was asked his thoughts about UF forcing six turnovers in a single game.
“Turnovers to us are just like points for us because we don’t really get to score a lot. So we try to turn over the ball as much as we can so the offense can try to put points on the board for us,” he said.
“And six turnovers in one game, that’s a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get candy today or something like that. That would be nice.”
For a defensive coaching staff that demands perfection and saw plenty of flaws in the Gators’ performance – even though the unit limited the Vols to 66 rushing yards, 220 yards of total offense and 20:23 of possession time – candy was the last thing that was going to be passed out this week.
Fowler understood, and was joking anyway, noting that the defense knows it can do better and wants to be known as the best in the nation. He said the goal coming into each game is to register a shutout and that looking for praise from the coaching staff is a fool’s endeavor because it comes rarely if at all after a game.
“I’m pretty sure if we make a big play or something like that, [Muschamp will] be pumped. But that’s our job. We try to dominate.”
If Florida does hope to remain dominant on defense without Easley manning the middle, Fowler has no choice but to play a major role in the Gators’ success going forward.