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Can Zachary Carter be another Dante Fowler for Gators?

The Hillsborough High alumnus switched to Fowler’s old jersey number, inviting a comparison to the former No. 3 overall pick.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter went after his former teammate, Feleipe Franks, during their meeting last season.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter went after his former teammate, Feleipe Franks, during their meeting last season. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | The Associated Press ]
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 16

Zachary Carter knows the comparison is obvious. A Florida defensive lineman switching jersey numbers from 17 to 6 is surely an homage to former Gators great, Dante Fowler, right?

“I really just wanted a single-digit number,” Carter said. “I think it looks good on me, though.”

If it looks as good on Carter as it did on Fowler, the Gators’ defense will be on its way to turning around last year’s historically bad unit.

Related: Why the Gators think their historically bad defense will improve

Intentional or not, there are some similarities between Carter and Fowler. Both are Tampa Bay area products; Carter starred at Tampa’s Hillsborough High, while Fowler was an Under Armour All-American at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg.

Zachary Carter, seen here against Armwood High in 2014, starred at Hillsborough.
Zachary Carter, seen here against Armwood High in 2014, starred at Hillsborough. [ Times (2014) ]

Both are versatile defenders. In his three years at UF, Fowler could rush the edge like a traditional defensive end or stand up as a linebacker to drop into coverage or attack the quarterback. Carter started the first three games of last season inside at tackle, then moved outside to end for his other eight starts.

And although the new number wasn’t a direct nod to Fowler, Carter has spoken to the former No. 3 overall pick before and respects the current Atlanta Falcon’s game.

Whether Carter can join Fowler as an all-conference performer and NFL starter depends on whether he can make the same kind of leap Fowler did in his final year at UF.

Related: Why Feleipe Franks says his ankle injury was ‘the biggest blessing in my life’

Fowler was good in his first two college seasons, earning freshman All-America consideration in 2012 and second-team all-SEC honors in ’13. Then he became great.

He more than doubled his sack production (from 3½ to 8½) while leading the team with 17 quarterback hurries and 15 tackles for a loss. Fowler’s final accolades included first-team all-SEC honors, second-team All-America recognition from at least two outlets and the team’s MVP award.

Dante Fowler, seen here celebrating a win in 2014, had an excellent three-year career with the Florida Gators.
Dante Fowler, seen here celebrating a win in 2014, had an excellent three-year career with the Florida Gators.

Like Fowler, Carter has been good through the start of his career. He led the team with five sacks and 9½ tackles for a loss last year and earned SEC defensive lineman of the week honors with eight tackles as the starting tackle against South Carolina.

But the former top-150 recruit has room to improve. That (plus the chance to finish his journalism degree) is why he returned to UF for a fifth year instead of entering the NFL draft.

“I really wanted to leave my mark and leave my legacy at this program,” Carter said.

Related: Florida’s early 2021 college football viewing guide

He probably won’t do it by putting up the same kind of numbers Fowler did; their skillsets are too different.

At 6-feet-4, 277 pounds, Carter is an inch taller and 16 pounds heavier than Fowler was. Although the addition of grad transfer tackles Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) could allow Carter to spend more time on the end, his inside-outside versatility is what can make him an anchor of the defense.

Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter, seen here celebrating a win over Colorado State in 2018, has been a valuable contributor for the Gators.
Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter, seen here celebrating a win over Colorado State in 2018, has been a valuable contributor for the Gators. [ Times ]

“We’re going to move him around,” coach Dan Mullen said. “... The more experience you have, the more knowledge you have within the system, the easier it is to kind of move you around to try and create matchup advantages.”

The matchup advantages won’t always look like the ones Fowler created seven years ago for Florida. But if Carter’s versatility creates as many problems as Fowler’s did, then No. 6 can start to take on a different sort of legacy in Gainesville.