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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Players have all sorts of pregame idiosyncrasies to get themselves hyped up for the next 40 minutes of play. Gators forward Dan Werner has just one - listening to the same three songs.

"You can just see him getting in the zone," forward Jonathan Mitchell said. "If you ever notice him before the tipoff, if you look at his face, his face is stone."

Werner does not draw inspiration from the typical pump-up songs like Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" or Nelly's "Heart of a Champion." Instead, he reverts to his New Jersey roots, plugging his ears with Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita," "Thunder Road" and "Badlands."

"If someone else would listen to them, they would be like, 'What is this?'" Werner said. "I don't know what it does. It just gets my mind right."

As the sophomore looks to The Boss to help him prepare for UF's game at Tennessee on Tuesday at 9, the Gators will look to Werner to see the same player they witness every day at practice.

Each day, UF's assistant coaches keep track of hustle statistics, points given every time a player takes a charge, grabs an offensive board, makes a steal or gets a hand on the ball. Points are also deducted for lack of effort, like not boxing out properly.

Every week, one guard and one forward are dubbed the hustle stat champions, and a small, white "F" becomes a permanent part of their blue practice shorts.

Werner has earned six of the seven F's handed out so far this season. Center Marreese Speights claimed the other, which Werner said he missed out on by about one or two points.

"It doesn't really take into account points or anything. It takes into account all the little things," Werner said. "And that's really what I pride myself in."

But it has taken some time for Werner to become acclimated to his role.

He chose to head to UF after decommitting from North Carolina State when Coach Herb Sendek left for Arizona State. Though the sophomore said he has never regretted the decision, he said he struggled to grasp his role on a team returning its national champion starting lineup.

He averaged 8.9 minutes, 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds per game during his freshman year.

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"Sometimes, Dan would get into these moods like he didn't feel like he belonged here," said Mitchell, Werner's roommate. "But you're a collegiate athlete … you just can't get down on yourself for too long. You just got to keep working hard and just keep fighting through adversity."

During the first few weeks of practice this season, Werner said he still remained low-key, staying in the background despite the fact that he had become one of the most experienced players on the Gators' young roster.

"I wasn't really going up and getting after anything. Those first couple weeks I wouldn't have these Fs on my shorts," Werner said. "Something happened. I can't point to what. I talked to Coach (Billy) Donovan. … I just realized I had to be the tough guy, the hard-nosed player."

Not everyone was willing to accept his transformation, especially on the road.

"Early on there were some people that were on him, people telling him he can't be here," said Werner's father, Ron. "At Alabama they were getting on him, saying, 'Give back your ring. You didn't earn it.'"

Werner responded to the heckling with 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals.

He chips in every game with an average of 8.2 points. He ranks second on the team in rebounds with 149, trailing only Speights, and he has drawn a team-high nine charges this season.

His aggressiveness has resonated with the fans, fans that used to groan every time he touched the ball. Now they shout his new nickname, "Thunder Dan." Some have created T-shirts with the message "I'm a Werner Witness," taking a cue from Nike's ad campaign for Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James.

"It's fun to see the way things have changed for him," Werner's father said.

Though his parents still live in New Jersey, they make their way to Florida every chance they get, staying in a house they bought in Gainesville this past summer. Werner's older sister, Jen, lives in the house year round and studies elementary education at UF.

Because she is older by less than a year - she was born Oct. 20, 1986, and he was born Oct. 9, 1987 - she elected to attend Brookdale (Lincroft, N.J.) Community College for one year until Werner made a decision about college and basketball.

"I hadn't missed any of his games growing up, so it didn't make sense to miss them when he was playing at this level," she said.

Werner's father is one of six children and his mother is one of seven, but the fact that most of them live in New Jersey hasn't kept the clan from watching Werner play.

Many of them have purchased ESPN's FullCourt package so they can catch all the games on television. Werner's grandmother was delighted on Christmas morning to find out that she, too, now had the upgraded cable.

"The whole state of New Jersey is keeping ESPN in business," his sister said.

So they will tune in Tuesday to find Werner doing all of the little things, which appear to be not so little to his teammates.

"Every team needs that," Mitchell said. "More of us need to do what he's doing. It's nice watching him, trying to learn from the things he does, because the little things he does are big things in the game and momentum builders for us. Things like that spark the team."

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