'He's been the story of the spring': Dante Zanders put team first early in Florida career

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Throughout his first spring with the program, Florida coach Billy Napier heaped praise upon tight end convert Dante Zanders on several occasions, though Napier saved his most complimentary remarks for the Boca Raton native’s play for the conclusion of camp.

“I think the first thing I would say is Dante Zanders, you can immediately see where he's got a future. I can't compliment him enough. I mean, he's been the story of the spring,” Napier said. “Heck, we get three scholarship tight ends injured, out for the spring three, four, five practices in. We moved him over from defense and the guy picked it up quickly. I saw him around the facility more than some of the coaches. He was in there grinding away, and he has ability.”

It’s been an arduous journey to this point for Zanders, one marked by patience, position changes and apprehension. 

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A three-star recruit out of Boca Raton

When he signed with the program, the 6-foot-5 Zanders was a three-star prospect, and there was much uncertainty regarding how he’d be used at the next level. Zanders was ranked by some recruiting services as a tight end, the position he played during his senior season; others had him pegged as a defensive lineman, the position where he initially garnered interest as a recruit out of Boca Raton.

Either way, Florida’s tight end coach at the time and the staffer tasked with recruiting the area, Ja’Juan Seider, believed the program had landed a prospect in Zanders whose potential significantly exceeded his three-star designation. 

Upon arriving in Gainesville, however, Zanders followed the path of most freshmen: he went from a high school standout to a reserve. 

He would play the first two years of his UF career at the tight end position, albeit sparingly. Zanders saw the field primarily on special teams. He didn’t record a catch in 15 appearances over the first two years. It wasn’t Zanders’ fault necessarily — after all, he was in a room with future No. 4 overall NFL draft pick Kyle Pitts, in addition to backups Kemore Gamble, Lucas Krull and Keon Zipperer.

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Following his first two seasons at Florida, Zanders was moved from tight end to the defensive line — a move he now credits with restoring faith in his ability. 

“When I came in and was not playing, my confidence had dropped drastically,” Zanders said. “And then just switching over to defense, and being with all of those different defensive guys over the years really helped build my confidence back up.”

Now in a position that rotated more frequently, Zanders would see the field in 23 games over the next two seasons in Todd Grantham’s defense, including the entirety of the 2021 campaign, though he again found himself in a reserve role. By the end of the season, with the Gators searching for yet another head coach, Zanders had decided to explore options outside of Florida.

Gators head coach Billy Napier talks with Dante Zanders during spring practice on April 2 at the football training center in Gainesville.

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On Nov. 29, just two days after Florida’s narrow victory over Florida State and a day after the hire of Billy Napier had been officially announced, Zanders entered his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal. 

He did, however, give Napier some time to change his mind.

“I felt like I, don’t want to say I was washing away, but I felt like I wasn’t being seen or being noticed, and that’s not only just because of me,” Zanders said. “That was because of the guys that were in front of me, too, being behind Kyle Pitts and Zach Carter. So, being behind them, it made me see my potential, but it never was being seen, like, brought to the light until this coaching staff.”

There were no guarantees or conversations about his position, but by Jan. 2, Zanders had seen enough to remove his name from the transfer portal and remain at Florida for his fifth season of college football. 

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“It was the Identity phase. When I was in the portal, I came back and I talked to coach Napier and coach PT, Patrick Toney, and I listened to what both of them had to say and they both told me that if I’m willing to buy into the program and do what’s best for the team, rather than just doing whatever’s best for me, if I buy into what’s going into the team and the program, he would reinstate my scholarship and let me come back. So after those conversations that we had, I decided to stick around and just see how the progress is going to be for spring, and then it turns out it was a hell of a choice.”

Following offseason workouts, Zanders began working with the defensive line for a third consecutive spring, but a wave of injuries over the first two weeks to Nick Elksnis, Jonathan Odom and Gage Wilcox left the Gators without three of their four available scholarship tight ends for the remainder of camp, and beyond. Napier later called Wilcox’s injury a “career-ending” injury, though details haven’t been publicly divulged.

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“I was baffled, to be honest. Everybody was,” Zanders said of seeing the trio of tight ends go down. “Those guys, they were looking to have a good spring, and it sucks, to be honest, to not have the opportunity to have guys keep progressing.” 

Along with hindering the players’ ability to continue their improvement during camp, the ailments left UF without adequate depth in the room. It also may have caused some initial concern for Florida’s ceiling on offense.

At Louisiana, Napier had success with a "12 Personnel" formation, where two tight ends see the field at the same time with a running back, though they must be able to put a hand in the dirt and block as well as make the catch in traffic. 

Florida’s coaching staff assessed the roster and decided that, given his experience at the position, Zanders would be an ideal candidate to make the switch to tight end, in addition to  defensive lineman Griffin McDowell and outside linebacker Noah Keeter.

Hesitant at first, Zanders soon warmed to the move.

"When I first got here, I talked to him kind of like one of those wink-wink, nudge-nudge type things," tight ends coach William Peagler recalled, "and then, once he kind of went through spring and saw the situation that was in front of him and the opportunity he had with us, he was actually excited about it."

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Gators defensive lineman Dante Zanders (18), wide receiver Jordan Pouncey (86) and offensive lineman Hayden Clem (79) sing after the Orange and Blue spring game Thursday at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

The move back to tight end appears wise now, but it wasn’t as if Zanders had been spending his spare time running routes or working on becoming a vertical presence in the open field. 

“I hadn’t caught a pass since before I switched. I would throw a ball around in practice, just playing catch like you do when you’re a kid, but other than that I didn’t run routes or any of that stuff over the past two years,” Zanders said. “But during our identity phases, they had us doing a whole bunch of footwork and all of those drills, so doing those helped me kind of remember everything I was taught before I switched over.”

Going forward, Dante Zanders says 'I've got a lot of prove'

Considering Zanders was relearning much of what it takes to play the tight end position, Peagler took a patient approach, opting to keep things light-hearted instead of creating a stressful atmosphere. There’s no screaming and shouting at a player who in a sense is back at the beginning.

“He’s a funny dude. The way his coaching style is, he’ll coach everything, but he’s not always super, super serious. So when you walk into the meeting room, you’re not nervous,” Zanders said. “You’re not like, ‘oh man, I got this meeting, coach Peagler is going to chew me out and yell at me and everything’, so you’re not as nervous. Coach Peagler, if I mess up, he’s going to tell me how to correct it, rather than just screaming at me and yelling.”

The approach has already paid dividends. Zanders capped his breakthrough spring by leading all pass-catchers in the Orange and Blue game, hauling in five of his six targets for 56 yards. Echoing his head coach, Zanders plans on contributing in consequential moments in the near future, and he clearly has lofty goals for the 2022 regular season — to reach them, he hopes to train once again with his former teammate, Pitts. The two have been in contact since Zanders moved back to the position. 

“I’m trying to focus and finish my spring classes strong, and then we have to do our football conditioning. When that’s all done and they give us our break, I’ll probably go work out with Kyle Pitts, I talk to him regularly,” Zanders said. “Every time I call him, if I have questions about basically anything, ever since I switched over, he’s been a hell of a dude. Asking me what I need help basically. If I’m not understanding something, he’s in a higher league than I am, so he’s given me his insight, which allows me to become a better player. Training with him is going to help me be able to elevate my game.”

The Gators should get Elksnis and Odom back in time for the regular season, in addition to the three freshmen tight end signees in Arlis Boardingham, Hayden Hansen and Tony Livingston, but Zanders hopes his days of being underutilized are behind him. He’s ready to put in the work. 

“I’ve got a lot to prove. I’ve been here for a while and haven’t really done anything, so I’ve got a lot to prove to show why I should be here,” Zanders said. “Just stay tuned.”