GAINESVILLE — In five years as a Florida linebacker, Ryan Stamper has steadfastly worked his way from afterthought to starter on the Gators' No. 1, undefeated team, yet up until two weeks ago, he never had a single interception. Now with three regular-season games remaining in his final season, Stamper has had an interception in back-to-back games. Ask him about it and he can't help but laugh.
"It's kind of funny if you think about it," Stamper said. "All those years, all these games and I could never get one, now I've got two in two games. That just goes to show if you keep working hard, good things will eventually happen for you. You just have to keep working hard."
After spending the first three years with the Gators trying to shake the label of being too slow, and too small, Stamper is having a career season, following a breakout year last season.
He's a captain and one of the most highly respected players on the team. And yet, he's still trying to shake that label.
"He is too slow," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "He is."
That's also what Meyer thought when Stamper, a Jacksonville First Coast standout, first caught his eye. Meyer was in his office one night, shortly after he was hired as the new Florida coach, looking at his recruiting board and trying to salvage a class one month before signing day.
"The way we recruited him is because he's got a great mother named Gloria (Westcott) that's a great Gator fan," Meyer said. "I wish I was joking, but I'm not. I was searching the Internet, laying up in my office one night, and I see this young man is committed to Auburn. I said, 'Why is this guy going to Auburn?' We really didn't recruit him. We watched video off the Internet on the screen. I got in the car the next day and drove and met his mom. She's a great lady. And he is too slow to play linebacker, but he's just a great player. Our players love him, and our coaches love him as well."
Lack of speed aside, Stamper has defied the odds. He has played in 36 games and started all nine this season. He has a team-leading 54 tackles (27 solo), with a career-high 13 against Mississippi State. Yet his teammates and coaches say Stamper's real value can't be measured by numbers.
"Stamper is just, he's a real war-daddy on the field," junior defensive end Justin Trattou said. "He takes charge, and he's a great leader. He plays really hard; that's what we expect from him every week, and he always comes through. He's the smartest guy on our defense — he makes all the calls, he's a great communicator. He's having a great season."
Stamper, 22, did not see action his freshman year then played in two games as a sophomore in 2006. In 2008, he started 11 of 12 games and was named a captain.
What has made Stamper so valuable this season is his versatility. Although he's a starter at outside linebacker, he can play all three linebacker positions. Senior Brandon Spikes has missed 2½ games, and Stamper has stepped right in.
"I'm real comfortable playing in the middle," Stamper said. "I played it in high school; I'm used to playing all three. My biggest concern is helping this team and making sure we keep winning, so I'll play wherever they need me. I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
Stamper has drawn comparisons to former Gator star Mike Peterson — a never-flashy, consistent, smart player who quietly became the heart of the Gators defense. That most likely will be Stamper's legacy.
"He's phenomenal," UF assistant defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said. "He's as valuable a player as we have on our defense. Brandon Spikes is a great player and we have a lot of really good players, but in terms of the glue and being able to tie that together, Brandon's able to do what he does because of what Ryan Stamper does. He's a very bright, intelligent guy in general, but certainly as a football player. He's a really valuable guy."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.