Dante Fowler, Jr., has big plans for the NFL draft. In one month, he’ll be at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, wearing an outfit he’s already started to plan—Christian Louboutin shoes, and the gold watch he accidentally wore during his speedy 40-yard dash at the combine. “Maybe I’ll win best dressed,” he says. But the versatile pass rusher, who left the University of Florida after his junior season, has his eye on a much grander prize: Being the first defensive player selected. In the coming weeks, Fowler has a busy schedule. His pro day is next Tuesday in Gainesville, Fla., and immediately following that he has in-house visits scheduled with the teams that hold the second and third overall picks. Fowler considers himself “a guy who likes to stand out,” and he doesn’t plan on entering the NFL quietly.
VRENTAS: Is there anything you want to show teams at your pro day next week?
FOWLER: I want to show teams that I’m the No. 1 defensive guy coming out. That’s what my biggest thing is. I’m not doing anything else but the position drills, and working with coaches, and things like that. But my mentality and my mindset going out there that day is to show them that I’m the best defensive guy coming off that board.
VRENTAS: What makes you believe you’re the best defensive player in this draft?
FOWLER: My passion for the game and how I play the game. I have been playing ever since I was 4 years old, so I was taking it seriously growing up, and studying players from Ray Lewis to DeMarcus Ware to Von Miller to Lawrence Taylor. Then being able to work with coach Dan Quinn my freshman year, and being able to pick [former Florida coach Will] Muschamp’s brain and see how great of a defensive guru he is, and the mentality he likes his players to bring. Playing with that edge, being dominant every play and being very versatile. I can play defensive end. I can play a 3-4 outside linebacker and drop back into coverage. I can play in the box as a linebacker as well. There are a lot of things I can do that I feel like I have an advantage over most guys.
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VRENTAS: Have you told NFL teams that you think you’re the top defensive player?
FOWLER: Oh yeah. All the time. That just shows how confident I am in myself and my game and the way I play. I have a love for the game, and I take everything seriously when it comes to the football field. When I am out there, I feel like I am that guy, because I have put in the hard work and I don’t see anybody beating me.
VRENTAS: Who introduced you to the game at age 4?
FOWLER: My dad. One of my first memories ever, as a baby, is me on the football field with my dad. He was a community coach, Pop Warner, coached some high school ball, too. He was just one of those guys who loved to help the kids around the community better themselves and make it out of St. Pete and do something with their lives. He had a passion for the game, and that’s where I get my passion. He loves football. Eats, sleeps, breathes football. I started playing flag football around age 4, and we just took it from there. I was a mama’s boy, but I loved football, and I always listened to my dad when he had me outside in the yard. I took everything he said seriously. Since we were kids and we were young and we just wanted to have fun, he probably didn’t think I was taking it seriously, but I listened to every word he said. He told me the great ones always go outside and practice on their own, so I used to do that. My dad is still my coach to this day.
VRENTAS: You played so many spots on the field at Florida. Is there anywhere in the front seven you didn’t play?
FOWLER: I played everywhere, from defensive end to 3-technique to head up over the center; even middle linebacker, Sam linebacker and Will. I played every position in the front seven, and that’s a big reason why I think I’m the most complete package. Growing up, I was actually a linebacker. I played linebacker all my life, but my 10th grade year, I was getting really big and started growing into my body, and I saw that I wasn’t going to be able to play linebacker at 250 pounds. I moved to defensive end, and that summer I was working with my position coach, Mike Moten, who also played for the University of Florida. We just took it day by day and he tried to make made me comfortable in that position. That’s how I started playing defensive end, and I just took it from there. My freshman year of college, I was 280 pounds, so I was pretty big. I was coming off the bench at that time, on a lot of third downs and things like that. My sophomore year, I was the starting Buck, like a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, and I knew I was going to be out in space covering a lot of those guys, so I wanted to trim my body down and lose some weight. I started eating really well, and my nutritionist helped me tone my body up. When they told me to drop back in coverage, it was never a problem, because I always played linebacker growing up, so it was a second-nature kind of thing. It was an advantage playing both positions.
VRENTAS: I’m sure you’ve been telling NFL teams you will play anywhere, but where do you think you’re most effective?
FOWLER: Coming off the edge. That’s my job, to rush the edge and set the edge, and I do a pretty good job at both. I can hold my point of attack and still be outside and be able to make the play. On third downs, when you need to rush the quarterback, I am there all the time. I get off the ball pretty well, and I have a couple moves that I have in my bag of tricks.
VRENTAS: What’s your best move?
FOWLER: I think my best pass-rush move is the chop-club. You chop down, and then you club with the other arm. My second-best move is the spin, my counter move. I watch Dwight Freeney a lot, and that was really the only move he did all the time, and it worked. I was watching him, and I was like, ‘Man, that guy can really spin,’ and I went in the backyard and I practiced it. There was one point in time when the only move I would do was the spin move, and I got really good at it, so it became one of my favorites.
VRENTAS: What did you learn from playing for Dan Quinn your freshman season at Florida?
FOWLER: He taught me so much in one year, and it’s kind of scary, because I always ask myself, ‘What if he would have stayed the rest of my career? What would have happened?’ But he still had some dreams he wanted to accomplish, which was being an NFL coach, and hats off to him. He’s doing a lot of great things, with what he did in Seattle, and what he’s doing now in Atlanta. He deserves everything that he’s getting, and more. He was my position coach my freshman year, and he was my high school recruiter, too. He and coach Muschamp were big reasons why I flipped from Florida State and went to UF. He was like a father figure for me, and he was there from the first day I met him until today. When I was growing into a mature young man, he was there.
When you listen to coaches, sometimes it goes in one ear and right out the other, but when he talks, you listen. Whenever I had a question, he had an answer. You have your own work ethic, but he taught me how to dig in, and dig in a little bit more, because you always have a little bit more in you. And he taught me how to play my position, the Buck position. It’s different; it’s not like any other position. You have your cornerbacks, your linebackers, your defensive line, but your Buck, the Jack linebacker, is really the quarterback of the defense. That’s your athlete on the team, and he showed me how to play and how to move and feel good playing it. It baffles me sometimes, because I feel like a lot of the things I’ve done throughout my whole career, was the stuff he taught me in that one year.
VRENTAS: The Falcons have a top-10 pick, and are looking for a pass rusher. Do you think he’ll try to get you again?
FOWLER: I would love for him to. I know some of his plays, so going in, I feel like I wouldn’t get off to a slow start. He knows me, and he knows how to use me, and what he can do with me, so if I were to go there, I would feel totally comfortable. At the combine, I met with him and the [Falcons] owner and the GM, and they were great guys. We didn’t talk about any football; we didn’t get on the board and draw up plays, none of that. They were trying to get to know me, and my family, and where I come from. It was only 15 minutes, but we talked the whole 15 minutes.
VRENTAS: Pass rusher can be a boom or bust position in the draft. There’s a lot of pressure for first-round pass rushers to produce and turn in sacks. Why do you think you’ll be a boom for the team that selects you?
FOWLER: Pass rusher, that’s very crucial. Sometimes having a pass rusher is the key of the defense. It’s a big investment, when you are drafting a guy [that high]. I think I’m a boom—well, I know I’m a boom—because one, I have the experience; two, I can play the game; and three, I’m not going to let my coaches or my team down. I’m not going to be lackadaisical; I’m going to go in there and be the type of guy who’s going to work and be focused on my craft and turn my craft into a craft that I want other people to start doing. I want people to start doing what Dante Fowler does. That’s the approach I’m taking coming into this game. I know a lot of people aren’t as focused like that or not determined like that, and some people are satisfied just getting drafted, getting to the NFL and getting the money. But I am coming into this league, and I want to put a stamp on it as soon as I walk in. That’s just me.
VRENTAS: Are there current NFL players whose craft you have been trying to emulate?
FOWLER: Oh, yeah. I love me some Von Miller. Von Miller is the man, and Aldon Smith. I feel like those are the two prime dominant pass rushers in the league right now. Everything that they do, I try to model it and put it in my own game. Before those guys came in, I loved DeMarcus Ware. Just how versatile he was. He was dominant at both linebacker and defensive end, and nothing changed whether he stood up or had his hand on the ground. He was a great player I always looked at, and Ray Lewis, to see the passion and the love for the game that he had. Those were my guys growing up.
VRENTAS: You mentioned Lawrence Taylor earlier. Is he someone you’ve studied, too?
FOWLER: I knew who Lawrence Taylor was, I had his jersey, but I never really watched Lawrence Taylor growing up, because that wasn’t around my generation. But I actually just started watching Lawrence Taylor and some of the things that he was doing. He’s the great one, and in order to be the best, I feel like you have to look at who was previously the best and some of their tendencies and what they did to become the best. So that’s a guy that I’m studying right now.
VRENTAS: You turned heads at the combine with your 4.60-second 40-yard dash. Where does your speed come from?
FOWLER: To be honest, I was always slow [growing up]. My cousins and everybody else used to always beat me. They beat me all my life, no matter how hard I tried. I raced them all the time, and I knew I was going to lose. I already knew the outcome. I was a chubster; I was pretty chunky. But the end of my eighth grade year, I remember, I just started trimming fat. Maybe it was just going through puberty. I started to see how my body was going to be. And there was this one day when I was feeling good. I was starting to grow, and getting taller than everybody, so I’m like, if I’m getting bigger, I want to see if I’m faster than them now. So we were all outside, and I said, ‘How about we race?’ Everybody was there—my aunties and my uncles, everybody was watching. We raced, and I finally beat them, and that was one of the happiest moments of my life. That’s when I knew I was ready to take football really seriously, coming into high school. I knew I was going to be fine, because I beat them. And I just took it from there. The ladders, doing explosion drills, a lot of things in the weight room. I just got faster. No matter how big I got, I kept my speed with me. I was pretty confident going in [to my 40-yard dash]. I was actually a little disappointed. 4.6 was pretty good for 260 pounds, but I was hoping I could get in that mid-4.5 range. I had to gain some weight, but if I was 255, 250, or something like that, there’s no telling what I would have run.
‘I’m the Type of Guy Who Likes to Stand Out’
VRENTAS: You also turned some heads with the gold watch and cheetah cleats. Backstory?
FOWLER: Alright, so as for the cheetah cleats, I’m the type of guy who likes to stand out. I’m very outgoing, I have a good personality, and I am just one of those types of guys. I was really hoping I could get some lion cleats, because I’m a Leo—my birthday is in August—but they didn’t have them in my size. But when I saw the cheetah cleats, I was like, Man, this is all me right here. My gold watch, I had gotten that in the summer. And I wore my gold watch damn near every day, all day. It’s a G-Shock watch, so it’s a sports watch, waterproof and all that good stuff. I was really supposed to take it off for the 40, though. Nineteen other guys had to go in front of me, and I wasn’t going to stand there and not be warm, so I had my headphones on the whole time and was just warming up. Somebody grabbed me and said, ‘It’s time for you to go!’ I took off my sweats, and I was kind of in a rush, and when I got down [in my stance], I looked down and I saw my watch. I thought, Well, it’s kind of too late now. I ran my 40, and I was thinking, You just ran a 40 in your watch, so maybe this is really is my lucky gold watch. Some guys were saying they thought it was a Rolex. Boy, you’d have to be very brave to do something like that.
VRENTAS: After LSU’s pro day last week, left tackle La’el Collins told reporters to watch his film against Florida last year, because he felt like he held his own against you. Who got the best of that matchup?
FOWLER: That’s a bloodbath right there, me and La’el. We are cool with each other; we are good friends. I keep in contact with him. At the end of the day, I feel like that’s going to be my rival for my whole career, because he’s going to make his name for himself and he’s going to be a great offensive tackle. I actually knew who he was coming out of high school. He was a year above me, and I remember he was [one of the top] tackles coming out of high school. From watching his highlight tape, I knew he was nasty. My sophomore year, we went to Baton Rouge and played against LSU, and I’m not going to lie, I got my butt whooped. That was one of my worst games just because of how I got tossed around. So I spent the whole last summer getting ready for La’el, I ain’t going to lie to you. I knew I was going to run into some pretty decent tackles, but the main motivation was from him getting after me my sophomore year. I had it marked on my calendar the day after my sophomore game. That whole week leading up to the game, it felt like it was a year. Saturday finally came, and I was a captain, and he was a captain, too. It felt like we were about to do a boxing match. The whole coin toss, when the referees were talking, I was staring him down and he was staring me down. So I already knew what I was getting myself into, and he knew what he was getting himself into. We went at it that game; we went at it like some bulls. I had some wins, and I had some losses. That’s just how it goes when the best of the best are playing against each other.
VRENTAS: Have you taken any team visits yet?
FOWLER: I’ve been talking to some teams, but I haven’t really done any visits just because of my pro day and how far it was pushed back. But my schedule is going to be really busy after my pro day. The day of my pro day, or the next day, I have to go to the Jaguars, then after that, I have to meet with the Titans. Then, some other teams. Things will start picking up for me.
VRENTAS: Both of those teams pick in the top 3. Where do you expect your name to be called on draft night? Top five? Top 10? Top 20?
FOWLER: I’m just expecting to hear my name that first day, to be honest with you. It’s just a dream come true for this to finally be happening. And now that it’s here—when I am coming on that stage, and I am holding out my jersey for whomever I am playing for, with Mr. Roger Goodell, that’s when I know that all my hard work will have paid off.
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