NCAA Football Preview - Florida Gators

2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: Steve Spurrier was a God to the fans of the Gators, and to put it mildly, Ron Zook has not yet achieved that level of adoration. Zook has posted back-to-back 8-5 seasons since taking over the program, and both of his bowl appearances have resulted in defeat. The Gainesville faithful were calling for Zook's head, or at least his job, when the team began the 2003 campaign with losses in three of its first six outings. Fortunately, the team quieted its detractors by winning five straight contests, including handing eventual co-National Champion LSU its only loss of the season. In what was one of the year's most memorable games, Florida suffered a 38-34 loss to Florida State on November 29th, ending the regular season on a down note. In the Outback Bowl on January 1st, the Gators were completely outclassed in a 37-17 loss to Iowa.


OFFENSE: Zook took plenty of criticism last season when he decided to hand the reigns of his football team to true freshman quarterback Chris Leak, but that decision will undoubtedly help the squad in 2004. As a rookie, Leak threw for more than 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he proved above all else that he is cool under pressure. The good news for the young signal caller is that three starting offensive linemen from a year ago are back in place. The bad news, however, is that the skill positions do not return any stars. Ciatrick Fason is slated to be the starting tailback, and he is coming off a season in which he rushed for 583 yards and three scores. Considering that Fason averaged close to seven yards per carry, he clearly has some big-play ability. DeShawn Wynn will get plenty of carries as well, as he showed flashes of brilliance a year ago. At receiver, O.J. Small is a steady possession type while Chad Jackson and Andre Caldwell possess game-breaking ability.

DEFENSE: While five starters are back for the Gators on offense, only three return for the defensive unit. There is some star power, however, as sophomore linebacker Channing Crowder is fresh off a sensational rookie year. Crowder was recently named to the preseason All-SEC First Team by the league's coaches, a noteworthy sign of respect for such a young player. Crowder made 106 tackles a year ago and will be the key to Florida's defensive success in 2004. One player to keep an eye on up front is Jeremy Mincey, a super fast end who has transferred in from the junior college ranks. Expect Mincey to be one of the top newcomers in the SEC this season. Marcus Thomas and Kenny Parker are back at tackle, so stuffing the run at the point of attack could be a strength. The biggest concern is in the secondary, as all four starters from a year ago are gone.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Gators may have the best collection of kickers in the SEC, as Matt Leach, Eric Wilbur and Matt Piotrowicz are all outstanding. Wilbur averaged close to 45 yards per punt as a true freshman a year ago, and his confidence will go a long way toward guaranteeing another strong campaign. Piotrowicz is a kickoff specialist who has become popular for running down field and making tackles. As for Leach, he hit 21-of-27 field goal a year ago and showed plenty of leg strength. Andre Caldwell is back as the primary kick returner, but the punt return duties fall to Vernell Brown after the departure of former UF standout Keiwan Ratliff.

OUTLOOK: Expect the Florida offense to be potent, as the running back group is one of the best in the league and Leak is short on neither talent nor confidence. Despite Crowder's excellence, the defense has plenty to prove. Look for Florida to win in the neighborhood of nine games this fall. If that number is less, Zook could likely be unemployed at season's end.

By Pat Taggart
Aug 18, 2004
© Copyright 2004-2005

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