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Updated: October 24, 2003, 1:38 PM ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida tailback Ciatrick Fason had just enough of a smile on his face to make Ron Zook think he was kidding.

He wasn't. Fason walked into the coach's office to tell him he was through playing for the Gators.

"When he said that, I told him to close the door to my office, because one of us wasn't going to walk out of there," Zook said.

Dramatic? Maybe so. But Zook -- the quintessential recruiter -- made his case, and held onto a guy who has been a key to No. 25 Florida's surprising midseason resurgence.

Behind the sophomore's three touchdowns in the last two games, Florida (5-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) has defeated No. 9 LSU and No. 21 Arkansas on the road. The Gators, idle this week, play No. 4 Georgia next Saturday for a share of the SEC East lead. It has been a stunning turnaround, and Fason has been right in the middle of it.

"He's too good a kid, he loves the University of Florida, he loves football," Zook said. "He was discouraged. But I said, 'There are a lot of times in life where you're going to feel like this. You can't just quit when they come up."

Fason ran for 7,400 yards at Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach and was named Mr. Football in Florida his senior year. He committed to the Gators early -- while Steve Spurrier was still coaching -- and many expected Fason to be the next great tailback for the Gators, along the lines of Fred Taylor, or maybe even Emmitt Smith.

But the Gators have other talented runners on the roster -- including senior Ran Carthon and redshirt freshman DeShawn Wynn, who, like Fason, was a Parade All-American, and also finished his senior year as runner-up to Maurice Clarett as prep player of the year in Ohio.

Although Zook conceded that not much separated the top three through spring and summer practices, Carthon and Wynn wound up ahead of Fason on the depth chart. As September turned to October, the Gators sat at 3-3. Fason had already been punished once, for an unexcused absence from practice -- "We figured he had quit the team then," Zook said. He was still third string, and he was beginning to feel forgotten.

"He's usually so up, and to hear him so depressed just tore me up," his high school coach, Joe Reynolds, told The Palm Beach Post. "Kind of like you do with your kids, I told him to hang in there and there will be better days."

But the losing, plus the fact that he was recently married and has two children, 3-year-old Yolanda and 1-year-old Ciatrick, made him wonder if playing football should really be a priority.

"Really, I wanted to just go in there and see where I stood in the plan at the University of Florida," Fason said of his meeting in Zook's office. "I wasn't mad. I was just down. I felt like I could be playing."

His chance came when Wynn and Carthon both got hurt against LSU. Fason ran for 92 yards and scored a touchdown in a 19-7 win against the Tigers. Last week, he ran for 98 yards and scored twice in a 33-28 win over Arkansas.

Suddenly, Fason's career at Florida and the Gators' hopes for 2003 -- both considered lost causes just a few weeks ago -- have blossomed.

Possibly the most surprising thing about it is that, with Wynn and Carthon back at full health, Fason remains listed third on the depth chart. Of course, that depth chart doesn't mean that much these days.

Zook has made it a habit of getting several running backs involved, and that has paid off. Last week against Arkansas, when Fason strained his hamstring, the Gators were handing the ball to Jimtavis Walker and Skyler Thornton, the fourth- and fifth-string backs, toward the end of the game.

"There are enough touches to go around," Zook said. "I told Ciatrick that."

It turned out to be the case, and thus far, it looks as though Zook might have been right on another subject, as well.

"He told me I was a hell of a player," Fason said, "and that I needed to keep doing the things I was doing."

^End Advance<

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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