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Young Gators have plenty of bite

8/25/2004

Florida's best player on offense is a sophomore. Florida's best player on defense is a sophomore. What every Gator fan wants to believe is that quarterback Chris Leak and linebacker Channing Crowder can post a "No Experience Necessary" placard on the SEC Championship.

Florida is a fashionable dark-horse pick in the SEC East because it has young, talented players who are expected to blossom this season after learning on the job in 2003.

And because, if the Gators don't own division favorite Georgia, they have at least a long-term lease.

But even without the superstition or mojo or whatever comes from beating the archrival Dawgs 13 times in 14 seasons, the Gators have the potential to be very good. The question is whether they will be very good in 2004 or later.

"Everything seems to be going well," coach Ron Zook said the other day. "A year ago, we didn't know who our quarterback was going to be. (Knowing) makes a big difference. You know what you got there."

Both Leak and Crowder started and starred last year as true freshmen. Both have shown unusual maturity on the field, although not always off, where Crowder was arrested over the summer for disorderly conduct. Zook suspended him for the opener against Middle Tennessee State.

Leak, on the other hand, has never given Zook a reason to waver.

"Chris is a young man who came in as a number one recruit in the country, kept his mouth shut, worked hard, and earned the respect of his coaches, the players and the Gator Nation," Zook says. "It's not an act. It's not a put-on. What you see is what you get."

The Gators got 2,435 yards and 16 touchdown passes from Leak last season, when he started the last nine games. He struggled early, but he had a knack for repeating his successes, not his mistakes. It's not as easy as it sounds.

"When something bad happens, he regains his composure," Zook says. "A lot of guys can't do that. He keeps right on going."

Zook feels the same way about Crowder. You don't have to be John Madden to figure out that Crowder is an instinctive football player. There aren't many guys who show up on an SEC campus, start nine games and make 106 tackles and the All-SEC team.

"If something happens to him once, it ain't going to happen twice," Zook says. "A lot of guys have to see it more than once. Channing's experienced beyond his years."

Zook insists that he has not aged beyond his years in two tumultuous seasons in Gainesville. The Gators have gone 8-5 in each season. A bigger problem is that Steve Spurrier never won fewer than nine games in any of his 12 seasons. With one fewer game this season, the native ingrates are restless, despite the fact that only nine starters return, and despite the fact that all of those upperclassmen who are gone included only two All-SEC players -- tight end Ben Troupe and corner Keiwan Ratliff.

Zook shuffled the nameplates among his offensive staff. Ed Zaunbrecher handed off the job of offensive coordinator to Larry Fedora, as Zook hopes to develop a more consistent running game. The Gators rushed for fewer than 100 yards in five games last season, including a season-low 57 yards in the 37-17 Outback Bowl loss to Iowa.

Ciatrick Fason showed flashes at tailback last season. He, too, must be more consistent, if Florida is to get that ninth win.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.