GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's the fourth day of Florida's preseason camp, and Jarvis Moss is already at war with his coaches -- in a very promising way.
It's a few minutes before the beginning of the mini-scrimmage portion of the Gators' practice on Wednesday, and offensive line coach John Hevesy is peeking around his huddle of hogs, staring in Moss' direction. The fiery assistant is flashing menacing glances at the pass-rushing force in the cut-off, No. 94 jersey -- and Moss is flashing them back. From his pack of defenders, Moss yaps at Hevesy, "I see you looking at me!"
Moss, you see, has been causing a few problems this week for Hevesy's crew, which is breaking in four new starters. "I kind of beat up on his linemen yesterday," said Moss with a proud smile, "so now he's sending them at me."
On Tuesday the 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior defensive end dominated the green O-linemen; on Wednesday he was less spectacular, but still broke through at least one double team to pressure quarterback Chris Leak. Watch a Florida practice this week, and you'll find yourself remarking, Jarvis Moss is in the backfield again, and again.
The stunning thing about Moss, who could become an All-SEC defender and emerge as a first-round NFL prospect after this season, is that he wasn't even in camp at the same time last year. He was at home in Texas, recovering from a pelvic bone infection that had the former Parade All-America shrunken to 219 pounds and, according to trainer Anthony Pass, "walking like a guy in his 60s, all slumped over, almost crippled."
Worn down to the point where he considered quitting football, Moss' career was rescued when Florida's training staff and doctors -- at the urging of new coach Urban Meyer and D-line coach Greg Mattison -- identified the problem in the spring of 2005 and began to flush it out with antibiotics. Moss returned on Sept. 17 against Tennessee, and finished with 7.5 sacks.
Moss, who says he "feels like a new man," was able to do a full summer of strength work heading into 2006, and he's being used in different looks from his "fox" position, sometimes as a down lineman, others as a stand-up rusher on the outside.
"Jarvis is very explosive, has very good speed and plays his butt off in practice," said Mattison. "When you've got those three things, you've got a special player."
Special, indeed -- as long as you're not one of the O-linemen assigned to block him in practice.
1. Meyer told me this about freshman quarterback Tim Tebow, the wunderkind who is tailor-made for the spread offense and is serving as a backup to the less-mobile Leak: "Tim will play in the first game. How much depends on him."
Tebow's response? "That's a big motivation -- it means I have to work as hard as I possibly can."
Tebow, who said he "loves to run," made a couple of stellar plays with his feet on designed runs out of the shotgun. His passing skills, however, are still behind Leak's. The freshman is a lefty and throws with a looser, albeit more forceful, motion than Leak. He seems to be a good half-second behind Leak in his decision-making through the air.
Tebow says the biggest thing he's learned from Leak has more to do with poise than passing: "I'm a rowdy kind of guy who bangs his helmet and that kind of stuff, so we're a little different," said Tebow. "Chris is a very calm quarterback, and he's already helped me to calm down."
2. On Tuesday, Ryan Smith looked like, appropriately, the biggest outsider in camp, sporting a yellow pinny over his jersey -- and no shoulder pads -- while his fellow defenders were in pads, wearing white. But Smith, the cornerback who arrived in Gainesville on Sunday after graduating from Utah and taking advantage of the NCAA's new grad-school transfer rule, gave his teammates an inkling of what he could bring to the Gators' secondary, which has been depleted by the losses of Avery Atkins (dismissed) and Bryan Thomas (injured).
Smith lined up in a drill opposite Florida's top wideout, 6-3 -- and padded -- Dallas Baker, and shadowed him over the middle. When Leak's pass spiraled in Baker's direction, it wasn't caught -- because Smith's helmet was in the way. Then the kid, who was a freshman All-America on Meyer's undefeated '04 Utes team, did something bolder: He engaged in a smack-talking session with Baker. It was one heck of a way to make a first impression. "He's a fighter, and that's why we like coaching him," Meyer said of Smith. "He and Dallas were woofing at each other already."
3. Florida's running back situation doesn't appear to be much better than it was in the spring, when Meyer was publicly critical of his ballcarriers. DeShawn Wynn, the leading returning rusher, missed two practices this week due to a 102-degree fever, and Keystahn Moore looked like the best of a group that lacks a standout, big-play runner. "Their attitude and work ethic is better, but I don't know how good we are," said Meyer, who'd like to name a starter by next week. "Eventually you've gotta say, 'You're our tailback,' or 'You're our two tailbacks,' and I couldn't tell you who they are right now."
Moore, a sophomore, is the tentative No. 1, but has been splitting time with fellow sophomore Markus Manson and freshmen Mon Williams and Brandon James. "Any given day, someone can become the starter," said Moore. "It's all based on our practice performances."