GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There are always a few players who make a big leap during bowl practices.
Last season it was CB Loucheiz Purifoy, who had been a solid special teams performer all season but made only spot appearances on defense. But he was so impressive during the 15 bowl practices that he ended up playing a lot in the TaxSlayer.com Bowl and eventually won a starting job.
There are several players who have made similar strides so far in Florida's 10 bowl practices -- WR Latroy Pittman, WR Andre Debose and DB Brian Poole, according to coaches -- but buck linebacker Dante Fowler apparently has made the biggest jump.
"One that is really kind of coming on and you can see is Dante Fowler," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "You say, 'Well Dan, he's played all year.' But he's playing really at a high level right now. And to me, you can see the momentum, the confidence, the understanding, at a faster rate."
Fowler has played well in 2012. The 6-foot-3, 277-pound freshman has 27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a quarterback hurry as the backup to starting buck LB Lerentee McCray. He got more comfortable as the season progressed, too. He had 4.5 of his 6.5 tackles for loss, 16 tackles, and all of his sacks in the Gators' final six games.
If he's getting even better, that's good news for Fowler and the Gators, who are still searching for an elite pass rusher. They haven't had one since Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham in 2009.
His improvement has been more mental than physical. Once the season starts, the players are preparing for opponents each week. After 12 games, Fowler now has the time to absorb everything he experienced and continue to progress in the system without having to worry about game planning.
The bowl practices are like an extra training camp or spring practice, and Fowler -- who isn't allowed to speak to the media because he is a freshman -- has taken advantage of the extra work with Quinn and defensive line coach Bryant Young.
"He's learned the system more than anything," NT Omar Hunter said. "He's getting smarter. He's a smarter football player than when he first came in. These practices [are] where coaches can help the younger guys more, because the seniors know everything. They know the schemes. Being able to focus on the young guys is really helping them out a lot. Whether it's understanding formations or defensive schemes, it's really helped them."
Fowler's improvement should help the Gators' pass rush next season. Ronald Powell will return after missing the entire season because of a torn ACL, but there is still some uncertainty about how effective he can be. If Fowler can play at a high level, that will take some pressure off Powell and allow the Gators some leeway into working him back into the lineup.
Fowler was impressive from the moment he stepped onto the practice field in the fall. Because of Powell's injury and McCray being sidelined with a strained hamstring, Fowler took a majority of the first-team reps at buck linebacker for several days. That was enough time to impress teammates.
He's doing it again in December.
"That kid is special," Hunter said. "He is special. He is what I wanted to be my freshman year. He's going to be a great player here, [a] quick, powerful guy. I think he can play inside at three technique and outside at the end. He can cover tight ends.
"He's just a special athlete, [a] special football player."