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No coach is better at leaving a disappointing season behind than Steve Spurrier. The man knows how to get away, usually on fine golf courses. His talented, experienced Gators went 10-2 in '98 but lost the only two games that mattered, to Tennessee and Florida State; missed the Southeastern Conference championship game for the second straight year after five appearances in a row; and after September were never a factor in the national title race.
At a July celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Spurrier ran into Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and talked about the two-time Super Bowl champions. "I told Mike, 'You guys play like the Gators used to—throw it around early and score a bunch of points, run it down their throats in the second half,' " says Spurrier. "Of course, we didn't play like that last year."
Florida scored 349 points last season, but that was its lowest total since 1992. A defense that included five players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft failed to dominate. "We had a whole bunch of superstars, and we still didn't play like we have in the past," says Spurrier. As a result Spurrier has decided to recast the third-winningest college football program of the '90s (behind Florida State and Nebraska) as underdogs. His players are listening. "This year we're out to prove everybody wrong who thinks the Gators are dead," says junior wideout Travis Taylor.
There's no better place to begin a reclamation project—even a manufactured one—than at quarterback, where senior Doug Johnson has been named the starter. Two years ago Johnson had the world at his feet. Not only was he the heir to Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, but he also had a $400,000 bonus from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was rich and cocky, and he and his family talked openly of pitting baseball against the NFL in a bidding war. Since then Johnson has endured major injuries to his throwing shoulder and left leg, been suspended for breaking curfew, alternated snaps with two teammates and tasted heavy criticism for everything from not being Wuerffel to playing two sports. He has started only 12 games.
Johnson missed the beginning of last season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and didn't start until the seventh game, against Auburn, after Jesse Palmer broke his right collarbone. Johnson went 4-1 as a starter, the only loss coming against Florida State in the season finale, but he was knocked out of the Orange Bowl with a broken left leg that required surgery and left six screws and a metal plate in the leg. With just one year of eligibility remaining, he told the Devil Rays he was not going to play baseball in '99 and instead has stayed in Gainesville through the spring and summer. "I haven't picked up a bat in a year and a half," he says. "Football is my priority. I've learned that bummin' on a bus through the minor leagues can't compare to playing for Florida in front of 90,000 people." Johnson had near perfect attendance in off-season conditioning drills and for the first time in his career is living with a teammate, center Zac Zedalis. "I'm going to put it together this season," says Johnson. "I'm taking everything good and bad that I've been through here and applying it to my last season."
Johnson could use a running game, which was all but nonexistent a year ago. Florida averaged only 115.8 yards a game and gained just four yards combined on the ground against Tennessee and Florida State. The leading candidate to rescue the rushing attack is 5'9", 218-pound redshirt freshman Earnest Graham, a punishing north-south runner. "He keeps the pile moving," says Taylor. Graham will run behind an offensive line that lost just one starter, which can be interpreted as good news or bad, given its performance of a year ago.
Taylor and Darrell Jackson are the only returning receivers who had more than 17 catches in '98. Spurrier will try to find a way to use sophomore John Capel, one of the fastest sprinters in the world.
The Gators' defense will have a new look. New coordinator Jon Hoke, formerly Missouri's defensive backs coach, replaces Bob Stoops, who became head coach at Oklahoma. In addition, nine starters from '98 are gone, including the entire front seven. Seven members of that '98 defense were subsequently implicated in a scandal involving improper dealings with an agent, lending credence to teammates' conjectures that some of the Gators had their minds elsewhere last year. "It seemed like certain guys weren't playing every down," says junior defensive end Derrick Chambers. "With what's happened since, with the agents, there's no doubt."
In Hoke's blitz-oriented system, Chambers could become a star. So could 6'3", 253-pound rush end Alex Brown, who wears the unusual number 13 in memory of McArthur Zanders Jr., a cousin and tobacco-picking partner, who was killed in a 1994 car accident. Of course, the star system failed the Gators a year ago. "I think this season the emphasis will be on team first," says Palmer. That's a philosophy even a front-running coach can embrace.
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