GAINESVILLE — When Dante Fowler walked into the Florida visitor's locker room Tuesday afternoon, it took awhile for anyone to recognize him.
The former Lakewood High standout is coming off an impressive first season with the Gators, but because coach Will Muschamp doesn't allow freshmen to speak with the media, Fowler's face wasn't familiar.
It didn't take long before the linebacker was very much at ease surrounded by reporters, talking about things from the joy of his freshman season to how hard he has worked to improve during the past three weeks in spring practice and the huge expectations for the upcoming season.
"It was fun and a big experience going out there and playing with Jelani (Jenkins) and (Dominique) Easley and Sharrif (Floyd)," Fowler said of three of his defensive teammates, two of whom (Floyd and Jenkins) left school early to try for the NFL.
"I was sitting at home watching those guys (in high school). So it was a lot of fun being out there and being at the college level, because I know a lot of kids aren't able to play at a big (Division I) level like that."
If his sophomore season is anything like his first, figuring out who Fowler is won't be a problem anymore.
Fowler, 18, played in every game last season, with one start, against Missouri (in place of injured Lerentee McCray). He had a career-high five tackles and a sack. Fowler had 30 tackles, eight for loss, and 2½ sacks on the season, and was named to the SEC all-freshman team by the league's coaches.
This spring he has lost about 12 pounds to help improve his quickness and his speed in rushing off the edge. He has spent countless hours watching tape, and on the field he has challenged himself against another Gators rising star, sophomore offensive lineman D.J. Humphries.
"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 to go against each other. We pretty much go even a lot. Dante's got a lot of moves. I've got a lot of counters for Dante's moves, and vice versa. So it goes about 50-50. Dante, he's a freak now. He's getting better every day as well."
Though he says it wasn't until about six games into the season that he began to feel comfortable, Fowler credits his time at Lakewood for helping him get on the playing field so quickly.
"Coach (Cory) Moore, we spent a lot of time with each other, and he was coaching me up and teaching me the things that I could do," Fowler said. "So if it probably wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't even be however good I am right now. And also from the experience with my dad (Dante Sr.) … learning from him and him coaching me up, taking a lot of criticism. After my high school games, we'd watch a lot of film and stuff like that."
It's that work ethic, an intrinsic desire to always seek improvement, that has endeared Fowler to Muschamp.
"Dante walks up to me every single day and says, 'What can I do to get better?' " Muschamp said. "And so it starts, to me, from a maturity standpoint of understanding what it takes to be successful. Because a lot of guys, they were a dominant player in high school, come to college and they've never had to work hard."
Spring practice concludes Saturday, but Fowler's work will go on. He said when he's not studying or attending classes, you'll most likely find him somewhere watching tape of himself and the Gators from last season. Because for Fowler, it's all about whatever it takes to become better.
"I feel like big things are going to be able to come to this year," he said.