GAINESVILLE — Ten months ago, most expected that when Florida and Florida State met, former Lakewood High star defensive end Dante Fowler would line up for the Seminoles.
Instead, when they play Saturday in Tallahassee, Fowler will wear a Gator uniform. He orally committed to the Seminoles early, but as national signing day approached, he began to have a change of heart. On Feb. 1, he signed with the Gators.
It has worked out extremely well for both Fowler and Florida.
The freshman has played in all 11 games, including one start, and made a strong contribution that has impressed teammates.
"Being able to learn the system so fast, that's what's impressive," senior defensive lineman Omar Hunter said.
"This is not an easy system to play in. For him to come in and learn it that quick is impressive. He listens. He wants to get better. He comes up and asks me questions all the time about what would I do in certain situations. He tries to learn each and every day."
That comes as no surprise to Fowler's high school coach, Cory Moore.
"He has always shown attributes of loving the game of football. And because he has a love for the game of football, he's able to pick up on different things quickly," Moore said. "At Lakewood, we try to do a lot of things they do at colleges … so when they get there those guys are able to adjust. Dante's a great kid, and he'll do a fantastic job at Florida, which he is doing right now."
Fowler, unavailable to comment because Florida doesn't let freshman talk to the media, has played linebacker and defensive end. His lone start came against Missouri on Nov. 3, when he had a career-high five tackles and a sack. When UF's coaches and players talk about the program's bright future, they inevitably talk about Fowler.
"Dante Fowler, he's a guy that ya'll are going to be talking about for years to come," senior defensive back Josh Evans said. "He's going to be real good."
Fowler has 26 tackles (6½ for loss) and 2½ sacks. Last week against Jacksonville State, he had three tackles and a half-sack. He is one of only three Gator freshmen who has appeared in every game.
"I want to credit Cory Moore there at Lakewood and the job he did with Dante," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Dante is a guy that is a very talented guy; that's blessed with a lot of ability. But he came in here a very humble young man. He came in here, and he's worked. He's put the time in. He's done an outstanding job for us academically. He's done an outstanding job for us socially. He learns well, and he works at it.
"He's always in (defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's) office trying to learn, trying to watch more film. And the guy listens. That's a talent. A lot of young guys have a hard time listening to someone else tell them, whether it's a coach or an older player. That's the one thing that Dante really has a strong talent for is listening to what other people (say), taking the input and understanding and learning from each experience."
Although Fowler's decision to attend Florida caused a stir, Moore said he believes that's in the past.
"I think he's matured past that, and he's looking at it just for what it is: another football game," Moore said. "People may have their own opinions about that, but I think he's matured into a young man, and he'll go out there and do a good job for the Gators.
"He chose the University of Florida, and he's showing that he made a really, really good decision."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]