The critiques began early in Dante Fowler Jr.'s football career. They were comprehensive and extremely candid.
Yet, even as a young boy, Fowler didn't mind it at all.
Because he knew when Dante Fowler Sr. was offering advice, and even criticism, it was strictly for his benefit. And if he listened carefully, and corrected the mistakes, it would pay off in the end.
"He was really hard on me," Fowler said of his father. "You could kind of say he yelled at me. I've always been a coachable guy. I just take it and try to get better from it. It's been like that ever since I was a little boy back in the back yard. You know, if I didn't do it right, watching film. Right after my games in high school I'd watch it before I went to sleep. My mom told him to take it easy sometimes, but I'm thankful."
Nine years after he began his Pop Warner playing days somewhere around the fifth grade, the benefits of his dad's tough-love approach have helped make Fowler a rising star at Florida and in the SEC. The defensive lineman has made himself a joy for his coaching staff and teammates.
"Dante has a great personality," coach Will Muschamp said. "He's a lot of fun to be around and coach. He's a joy to coach. He's always got a smile on his face. You can coach Dante hard. Guys of his caliber sometimes are not approachable in that situation. He's a guy that takes coaching. He wants to be coached. He wants to be coached hard. When he makes a mistake he wants to know what he can do to get better. That's what makes him a really good player. God has blessed him with a lot of ability. … He watches the film. He understands that good plays take care of themselves and negative plays are the ones he needs to correct. He'll correct them himself."
Fowler, a sophomore, was a standout at Lakewood High where he was ranked the state's No. 5 overall prospect by rivals.com. Florida coaches knew early on that he had the potential to be a special player, and he did nothing to change that opinion once he arrived in Gainesville.
He played in every game last season, including one start, and was named to the SEC Coaches All-Freshman team. He had 30 tackles, eight for loss.
"Not many guys as true freshman play, especially on the defensive line," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "He's that type of player. He's a very talented guy. He picks up football really well, he has good football awareness. … He's turned out to be what we thought he was going to be."
At 19, Fowler is playing at a high level in a crucial role. With the loss of senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley to an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his knee, Fowler's role has increased. Durkin said the Gators continually play him at different spots on the defensive line to provide more one-on-one opportunities because he's so difficult to block. He was named SEC defensive player of the week two weeks ago and has 17 tackles, seven for loss, and three sacks.
"I'm just trying to get better every week, so I just try to go back and look at the film and see where I need to get better and work on it," Fowler said.
To his teammates there are two sides to Fowler. He's the goofy young man who keeps teammates laughing and is extremely loyal. To show his love and respect for Easley, Fowler carries a large "Chucky" doll on road trips and keeps it in the locker room, just as Easley used to do. Yet, he's also the relentless player who lives to sack quarterbacks.
"He's a big kid," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "He's tough on the field, but he's like a little teddy bear off the field. I've never seen him mad."
Added senior linebacker Ronald Powell: "He's a little different guy. He's a little brother to me. Funny dude. And it's just natural. It's just who he is."
And he has no plans to change.
"Look at me, I'm smiling right now," Fowler said. "I like to play around and stuff. I just turned 19, so I just try to live life. I'm still a kid."
Except where it counts most for the Gators: on the field.
Antonya Englsih can be reached at [email protected]