Florida defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. isn’t normally mentioned in the same breath as former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney – now with the Houston Texans after being taken No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL draft.
Fowler certainly played like Clowney, however, last year when Florida knocked off the Vols 31-17 in The Swamp. As just a true freshman at the time, he recorded three tackles for loss, a sack, forced two fumbles and recovered another. Simply put, he created havoc for what was a veteran, talented offensive line.
And now with another year under his belt and a new UT offensive line that’s still finding its way, it’s understandable that Fowler might get Clowney-like attention from the Vols on Saturday.
“He’s a tremendous player and, absolutely, we’re going to know where he is on every play and even on extra point and field goal,” said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “He’s a one-man wrecking crew with his (ability to) rush the passer, defend the run well – extremely athletic, runs well. It’s similar to – I like to say in terms of Clowney – it is. I want to know where he’s at on the field.”
The Vols might have to search for him on some plays. He doesn’t always line up in the same spot. Though listed as the starting right defensive end, he can play on either side, inside or out, or can even stand up like a rushing outside linebacker. Though left tackle Kyler Kerbyson might have the largest burden in containing him, it’ll be a team effort.
All five offensive linemen, the backs, the tight ends and even the quarterback must find him pre-snap and make sure he’s accounted for by at least one man to avoid a repeat of last year’s damaging performance.
“That’s the thing about their defensive structure – they do a great job – they can put him just about anywhere,” Mahoney added. “We have to account for him. We have to know where he is. And we will.”
And while Florida’s defense hasn’t lived up to standard yet this season, UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian says the Gators have a lot of what they always seem to have – speed.
“They’re very fast,” Bajakian said. “Up front – No. 6 – Dante Fowler plays 100 miles per hour. In the backend, Vernon Hargreaves is really talented. And they’re deep across the board. They play a lot of guys, especially up front. They play a lot of guys in the secondary. They too have a talented freshman class at defensive back.”
Despite that speed and talent, Bajakian agreed with Mahoney’s assessment. It starts with identifying Fowler and making sure he isn’t free to repeat his 2013 performance. Easier said than done, but it’s something the Vols have been focused on all week.
“He’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s fast – he’s the whole package,” Bajakian said of Fowler. “There are always going to be guys on the defensive front that you need to focus on, and he’s one of them.”