- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Omar Hunter admits he believed it would be easy.
He thought he'd walk onto Florida's campus as a freshman in 2008, be given a starting job, rack up a boatload of tackles and earn All-Southeastern Conference and All-American honors.
But you can't really blame Hunter for feeling that way. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer raved about him on national signing day, during the summer before Hunter got to campus and again on media day just before practice began in '08. Meyer even called Hunter the Tim Tebow of the defense.
That's partly why Hunter was convinced stardom awaited him just months after he left Buford (Ga.) High School as a Parade All-American.
Except it never happened. His attitude, coupled with one serious injury and several nagging ones, kept him from fulfilling his -- and everyone else's -- expectations. Only now has the redshirt senior nose tackle finally started playing his best football.
To hear Hunter tell it, he had the wrong attitude:
"Coming in thinking that everything was going to be handed to me and not thinking I'm going to have to work," he said as the 10th-ranked Gators (4-0, 3-0 SEC) continued preparations for Saturday's game against No. 4 LSU (5-0, 1-0) at Florida Field. "Just being young and dumb, and seeing when I got here it was a different ball game. I think I'm starting to come around now."
The 6-foot, 313-pound Hunter is coming off the best game of his career, an eight-tackle performance against Kentucky that earned him SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. That puts him fourth on the team in tackles with 17, which is more than half his 2011 total (31) in just four games.
Hunter says he feels like he has been playing his best football since the middle of last season and his numbers are up in 2012 because he's been capitalizing on his chances and making more plays. However, center Jonotthan Harrison said Hunter's intensity has jumped noticeably since the Kentucky game.
"I actually noticed a huge, drastic change last week in his level of practice," Harrison said. "For whatever reason, he came out there and he's completely locked in, saying, 'It's time to work. It's time to go.' Every single play I've seen just outstanding effort out of him, even in practice as if it was a game.
"It's not like he was practicing bad before, but he just stepped up even another notch that we didn't even know he had."
For a long time it looked like Hunter would never get there. Hunter came to UF with a disk problem in his lower back and that kept him from doing much during preseason practice. He managed to get on the field for three games but then suffered an ankle injury.
He didn't get on the field again that season. It didn't help that his weight ballooned up to more than 330 pounds.
Hunter worked hard to shed the weight and ended up starting 11 games in 2009 as a redshirt freshman. He played in every game in 2010 (six starts) but was bothered by several minor leg and shoulder injuries all season. He played in every game in 2011 (one start) and made a career-high 31 tackles.
He has started every game this season. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Hunter is stronger than he's ever been and that's a key to his improved play.
"From the time I've been here, his strength's really improved from his lower body power," Quinn said. "When you play inside at nose tackle, even though you're standing up and you're playing a guy standing up, a lot of your power is generated from your hips and from your legs and there's been a real improvement from him. I think he's got more pop off the ball."
Plus, Hunter has refined his technique and spent extra time working with Quinn and defensive line coach Bryant Young both on the field and in the film room.
"When you're really practicing well, a lot of times that carries over into the game," Quinn said. "His practice preparation leading up into Kentucky and into the bye week and going into the LSU week -- he's been really practicing well. His pad level, his hand placement -- all the things you're looking for in a defensive tackle, he's been doing in practice."
Those are words Hunter expected to hear in 2008. He appreciates them more now, though, because he's not a big-headed 18-year-old any longer.
"Coming in as a freshman, I didn't prepare myself the right way on the field or off the field," Hunter said. "The more and more I grew up, things started changing for me.
"I really love the coaches I have now. They've brought me a long way from the time I was a freshman to the time where I am now. It's not even close."
Once a highly touted recruit who did little on the field, nose tackle Omar Hunter is finally tapping his vast potential in his senior season.