GAINESVILLE — Omar Hunter arrived on the Florida campus two summers ago with five stars next to his name on the recruiting Web sites and ranked the second-best defensive tackle in the nation.
From the moment he signed his name on a national letter of intent, Hunter was the talk of the Gators' 2008 recruiting class. A Parade All-American from Buford, Ga., he helped lead his high school to an undefeated season and a state championship.
He was, Florida coach Urban Meyer declared, the Tim Tebow of his recruiting class.
But shortly after his arrival, Hunter realized that if his story was to have a fairy tale ending, it wouldn't come instantly — or easily. First, he'd have to overcome a serious back injury, weight issues and disappointment.
As undefeated Florida prepares to host Vanderbilt this week, Hunter is now a starting nose tackle on the Gators' nationally ranked defensive unit and is living up to the expectations that were prematurely placed on him and nearly helped take him down.
"He's a guy that came in with high expectations and he was a major disappointment, more to himself than to anybody else," Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "And he wanted to make sure that everybody knew that he was going to help this program, that it was the right decision to bring him here. And he wanted respect from everyone. Earning trust and respect from everyone around the program is important and he's doing that right now, every week, and doing a heck of a job. I'm really proud of him."
After all he has been through, Hunter is pretty proud of himself as well. It's not as if he didn't know he had talent. But there were times last season when he wasn't sure if he'd ever get to prove it. He came in at 308 pounds, but prevented from working out and running because of the injury, he eventually carried 330 pounds on his nearly 6-foot frame.
"That was a rough period of time when I got hurt," Hunter said. "I was out of shape. I wasn't able to play football. It felt like three years, but it was only a year. When I was hurt, I didn't feel like I was a part of the team at all. I couldn't do any of the stuff they were doing and it just didn't feel good."
Tebow, the quarterback who came in with more hype than perhaps any other Florida player in history, was there to lend a hand.
"Right when he got here that summer we talked a lot," Tebow said. "There were a lot of expectations on him everywhere, from family to coaches here, to players, because he did come with the burden of coming in and playing. I'm so proud of him because he's battled and fought through everything. It hasn't come easy to him like some people thought. He's had to work.
"What he's done this year in stepping up and playing and contributing and making huge stops for us — what he did against LSU on the goal line, he was the one who was leading the charge on the goal line. He made some huge plays for us. He's made huge plays all year. And I'm so proud of him because he's fought through adversity and become a great player for us."
While Tebow tried to keep Hunter's spirits up, it was veteran defensive tackle Lawrence Marsh who kept Hunter motivated to play.
"He pushed me every day," Hunter said.
Coincidentally, it was Marsh's serious ankle injury, along with injuries to three other defensive starters, that opened the door for Hunter this season. Hunter has started in six of Florida's eight games and had a career-high six tackles against Arkansas.
Teammate Terron Sanders, whom Hunter refers to as "a big brother," said it's Hunter's eagerness to learn and improve that has made the difference.
"He doesn't go a day without asking a question about something, or critiquing himself about something that he did, or asking coach or asking myself or watching film," Sanders said. "He has the drive and the will to get better. And he doesn't cry or whine or wonder why coach is picking on him if coach is telling him something about something he's done. He takes it, he absorbs it and he tries to fix it the next day."
The expectations aren't any different from when Hunter arrived. It's just now he's physically capable of trying to live up to them.
"He had to fight the head coaches' praise too early," Meyer said. "… It didn't work out his freshman year because of back injuries, weight issues, the expectation-level issues. But he's going to be a really, really good player here and he's playing at a high level right now. Our coaches love him and our players have a lot of respect for him."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.