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At his first two head-coaching stops, Florida's Urban Meyer proved he could carry his team toward college football's summit. In only his second season at Utah, he turned the Utes into a 12-0 juggernaut that thrashed Big East champ Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. But when he took the Utah job, no one asked Meyer if he would win a title -- conference or national -- in his first season. That question came less than five minutes into Meyer's introductory press conference in Gainesville.
"That's not really my choice," Meyer said. "The Gator Nation expects it."
Those expectations crushed Meyer's predecessor, Ron Zook. He never won more than eight games and never came close to living up to the precedent set by Steve Spurrier, who turned the Gators into a fixture at the Southeastern Conference title game and considered any season without a conference title a failure. While Zook continued to tout the Gators' improvement even as the program slid toward mediocrity, Meyer seems more likely to adopt Spurrier's attitude.
Florida players learned that almost immediately. Meyer instituted a series of offseason workouts that included boulder-carrying, towel tug-of-war and a drill called "Run for the BCS." During spring practice, he ripped their lack of toughness. He called quarterback Chris Leak a "poor leader" and suggested that a defensive tackle noted for taking plays off seek another school if he didn't want to compete every down. But the Gators didn't revolt. Instead, they embraced Meyer's attitude and tried to please him -- which may never happen.
"That's what you want out of a coach," Leak said. "You want a coach who wants perfection."
Meyer said the Gators are a long way from perfect. He intends to bring them closer so he can stay atop the coaching mountain.
Forget the doubts about Leak's ability to adapt to first-year coach Urban Meyer's spread-option offense. The SEC's leading passer in 2004 probably won't run as much as former Utah quarterback Alex Smith did in the last iteration of Meyer's scheme, but Leak, a solid line, a talented receiving corps and a few serviceable backs could approach the PlayStation-type numbers (499.8 total yards, 45.3 points a game) the Utes put up last season.
Though Leak threw for 3,197 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, Meyer picked at Leak all spring. He criticized the junior's film-watching habits and his reluctance to speak up to his teammates. Since Meyer reserves some of his sharpest barbs for his best players, the brutal appraisals probably signal that Meyer believes Leak is one of Florida's most important players. After Leak torched the Gators' defense in the spring game, Meyer offered an endorsement. "He finished [spring] as a quarterback that there is no doubt in my mind can run this offense," Meyer said.
Florida must replace tailback Ciatrick Fason, who rushed for 1,267 yards as a junior and punched his ticket to the NFL. Juniors DeShawn Wynn and Skyler Thornton must fend off one another and a challenge from redshirt freshman Markus Manson to determine who carries the load for the Gators. Whoever wins will run behind a solid -- but thin -- line. Center Mike Degory anchors a veteran group backed up by a host of youngsters.
This could be the year Florida re-establishes its rich receiver tradition. Junior Chad Jackson and Meyer's offense meshed like barbecue and baked beans. That should be some consolation for those who couldn't figure out why Jackson didn't get the ball more last season. Andre Caldwell and Dallas Baker also could prove dangerous in the new offense. "We have more than one or two threats on this team," offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said.
Most programs would despair over replacing a player like middle linebacker Channing Crowder, but the Gators shouldn't lose a step with Brandon Siler leading a thin group that also features versatile outside backer Earl Everett.
Tackles Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas have started for two seasons, and the attacking style installed by co-defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison should allow the pair to use quickness more than last season's read-and-react scheme did.
Florida returns an experienced secondary with only one question mark. Cornerback Dee Webb and safeties Jarvis Herring and Kyle Jackson have established themselves, but the Gators must find someone willing to take ownership of the other cornerback spot.
Punter Eric Wilbur averaged 42.3 yards per kick last season, and he should continue to give the Gators an edge in field position. Florida must replace reliable kicker Matt Leach, and the search likely will continue into fall practice.
Meyer knows how to win. His challenge is to instill a winning attitude in the Gators, who grew to accept mediocrity during the Zook era. If Meyer can do that, talent can take Florida a long way. So far, the players have bought into Meyer's philosophy.
The date to circle is Sept. 17, when Tennessee comes to The Swamp. The Volunteers are loaded, but the Gators can steal the inside track on a trip to Atlanta with a win. Sounds like old times.