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August 6, 2010FALL PRACTICE: Urban's Overview: Player to transfer | UF focused, not fractured | Thursday Notebook: A new beginning | Florida's top gun | Practice breakdown | Preseason Superlatives
When five-star defensive tackle Omar Hunter showed up at Florida in 2008 he was overweight, out of shape and nowhere near ready to play the college game.
Two years later and 35 pounds lighter, Hunter is one of the starters on a Gator team ranked third in the nation and looking to win its second SEC title in three years.
Even with veteran defensive tackles Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders healthy again, defensive line coach Dan McCarney raved about Hunter's ability on Friday morning.
"He's number one right now," he said. "Those guys didn't take a snap in the spring. We don't put guys with ones that didn't practice for five weeks."
While holding onto the starting spot won't come easy, Hunter has done everything he can to put himself in position to be the man in the middle this season.
He changed his diet. He worked out harder. He even took Shelley Meyer's cycling class for a few weeks to slim down.
Now he feels like he's in the best shape of his life. He runs a 4.9-second 40-yard dash, two-tenths of a second faster than the 5.1 he ran when he arrived. He also said his vertical jump has improved, and he can move laterally much quicker.
While he isn't the most cut-up defensive lineman on the roster as McCarney pointed out, he looks much healthier than he did two years ago.
"You'll never have to worry about him being on the cover of GQ with his body," McCarney joked. "But he looks better than he ever has."
But Hunter knows it's what he does on the field that counts. He understands that there are guys breathing down his neck ready to get their jobs back.
"Coach Meyer says every day there's not a starter," he told reporters Thursday. "There's depth chart changes every day. That's only gonna make us better."
One thing Hunter has on his side is experience. While his stats don't necessarily reflect that (17 tackles and 2 tackles for a loss in 2009), McCarney stood behind his performance last year.
"He started nine games last year," McCarney said. "Thirteen games we won, and he started nine of those. He earned all kinds of respect. He's a better player right now than he was last year. That's exciting with all the guys we have to compete now."
And despite Hunter's relative youth, both the coaches and other players have noticed that he is taking an active leadership role with Florida's talented freshman class.
"I just come in and tell them to work hard," Hunter said. "Don't get down when a coach yells or screams. Just come in and work hard every day, and they'll be alright."
In fact, he seems to embrace the competition and the influx of talented youth. He knows that everyone behind him will be crucial to the team's success in 2010.
After being embarrassed by Alabama on the defensive line a year ago, Hunter thinks the added competition and fresh legs will help keep the Gators competing at a high level late into the season.
"We're definitely gonna need that depth," he said. "As the year goes on everybody gets so worn down, so that depth is definitely gonna help us out."
Hunter's goal for the 2010 season is pretty clear - help Florida win an SEC Championship.
"I think we're all playing with a chip on our shoulder," he said. "We want to get back to Atlanta. Get back to the SEC Championship."