Heard the one about the Gator and the hog? For Channing Crowder?s teammates, stories about the sophomore linebacker?s piggyback-riding never get old. ?You should?ve seen him jump on the back of this 200-pound hog last year,? says sophomore linebacker Earl Everett, one of several Florida players who?ve joined Crowder on excursions to south Georgia, where a friend owns land. ?He grabs hold of the thing and just rides along, hollering and screaming.? Crowder says the hobby helps his game. ?It?s just like making a tackle,? he says. ?You?ve got to run ?em down and throw ?em down.?
There are worse ways for a Gators defender to pass the time than chasing slippery prey. In three of four regular-season defeats last year, the D lost leads in the final two minutes. Though a freshman, the 6'3", 245-pound Crowder was the most consistently strong performer. ?Look at the Ole Miss game,? says defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, referring to a 20?17 loss that Crowder missed with torn knee cartilage. ?Put Channing in there, and we win.?
Crowder?s aggressiveness isn?t always for the best. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery after fighting outside a Gainesville nightclub in April ?03 and was busted for disorderly conduct outside the same club this May. (Charges were pending at press time.) But coaches point to his work ethic in the classroom--he was a member of the National Honor Society at Atlanta?s North Springs High--and onfield. Strong remembers Crowder arriving on campus last year and promising that if he didn?t make 20 tackles a game, he?d ?come close.? With projected starter Todd McCullough injured, Crowder got his chance, and though he didn?t get his 20 tackles, he did average 9.8 in nine starts. ?Sometimes in the film room we?d just watch Channing,? says sophomore defensive lineman Ray McDonald. ?He flies to every ball, puts his body on the line.?
The play of the young, athletic defense--including four new starters in the secondary--will be crucial if Florida is to improve on back-to-back 8?5 finishes. Strong has challenged Crowder to be a leader on the field. Crowder, of course, is game. ?Anything that?ll get us winning,? he says, ?sounds like fun to me.? --K.K.