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2. Florida

The Gators' toughest task may be choosing which passer will run their potent attack

By B.J. Schecter

 
Enemy Lines
An opposing team's coach sizes up the Gators

"This could be the most explosive offense in the country. Either quarterback, Rex Grossman or Brock Berlin , is going to create problems, but they're not so drastically different that you change your defensive calls. They can both make the throws they need to make because Steve Spurrier 's system takes advantage of what the defense is doing.... The receivers [ Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell ] make you work from sideline to sideline. Tight end Aaron Walker can stretch you up the middle.... [New defensive line coach] Ricky Hunley will toughen up end Alex Brown . Brown's a dog. He made big plays, but he doesn't show up when they need him. Great players play every down.... Their coaches are lazy when it comes to recruiting. They rely on the Florida name. You see them signing good players on offense because of the draw of Spurrier, but since they lost [defensive coordinator] Bob Stoops they haven't had the same success recruiting defensive players."

Sports Illustrated Coach Steve Spurrier knows his team is loaded and has a chance to win its second national championship in five years. At the same time, he realizes that much of the talent on this team is raw, and throughout the summer he has tried to keep his players from getting cocky. "I tell our guys all the time that we're not that good yet," says Spurrier. "We have back a lot of players [18 starters] and have a chance to [win the national title] if we work hard, but anyone who thinks we're a great team now is fooling himself. Last year we were eighth in the SEC in total defense, 11th in rushing offense and last in time of possession -- and we don't know who our quarterback will be. Trust me, we have a lot of work ahead of us."

Choosing a quarterback is Spurrier's primary dilemma. Sophomore passers Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin are locked in a battle that might last until the first week of the season. Spurrier, who has been known to alternate quarterbacks on every down, says whoever emerges as the starter will be given the opportunity to play full time. Grossman, who started eight games last fall and threw for 1,866 yards and 21 touchdowns, is more experienced, but Berlin, who was the 1999 USA Today Offensive Player of the Year and played sparingly in four games for the Gators in 2000, is considered to have the better arm.

"Both guys throw the ball well, and the guy who wins the job will probably be the smarter one," says Spurrier, a Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback who is entering his 15th season as coach at his alma mater. "Rex was instrumental in four victories for us last year, but he has to eliminate the bad plays. Brock is coming along nicely, but he hasn't played much. We hope one of the two will separate himself from the other. Our best years have been when we've had a quarterback who is definitely the guy." (Senior Danny Wuerffel started all 12 games in '96, plus the 52-20 Sugar Bowl win over Florida State.)

Whoever wins the quarterback derby will benefit from an experienced line, led by All-SEC senior tackle Mike Pearson and senior center Zac Zedalis (out for most of the last two seasons because of injuries), and one of the top receiving corps in the country. Sophomore wideout Jabar Gaffney is coming off a spectacular year, in which he set NCAA freshman records for catches (71) and receiving yards (1,184) and had 14 touchdowns. If he draws double coverage, juniors Reche Caldwell (760 yards, six touchdowns) and Taylor Jacobs (11.6 yards per catch) are skilled alternatives. The running attack, which produced only 110.5 yards per game last year, should improve because senior Robert Gillespie (678 yards, five touchdowns) and junior Earnest Graham (676, six touchdowns) are more seasoned, and highly touted redshirt freshman Willie Green, who scored a Florida high-school-record 107 career touchdowns but missed last year after having surgery on both knees, is healthy.

Featuring two big-play performers, junior cornerback Lito Sheppard (team-leading six interceptions in 2000) and senior end Alex Brown (11 1/2 tackles for loss, including 7 1/2 sacks), Florida's defense figures to be one of the nation's best. Senior linebacker Andra Davis, who made 109 tackles in 1999, is back after missing most of last season with a torn ligament in his right knee.

As usual, the schedule is daunting, but the Gators play Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida State at home. "We have a lot of guys who can play," says Spurrier, "but with our schedule, who knows?" He pauses, slouches in his chair and finally admits the opportunity to win a national championship is there for the taking. His sly grin suggests he's playing with a stacked deck.

Issue date: August 13, 2001


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