Questions need to be answered

Regardless of how it finished, this isn't the football season that will make or break Ron Zook as a head coach at Florida.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 12:48 a.m.

Before the Florida Gators drift into the offseason, two more important items of business must be addressed.

The future of quarterback Rex Grossman and filling the opening on the coaching staff created by the departure of outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Odom, who is following defensive coordinator John Thompson to East Carolina.

UF coach Ron Zook is expected to name his new assistant in the next day or two. Although Zook has shown a strong interest in hiring a high school coach from the state of Florida, the hire is expected to come from the college ranks.

"I have a good idea what I'm going to do," Zook said.

Grossman, who says he's been torn between remaining at UF for his senior year and leaving early for the NFL, also could announce his plans by this weekend, perhaps even as early as today.

Grossman said after Wednesday's 38-30 loss to Michigan in the Outback Bowl that he still has "no idea what I'm going to do."

Grossman said he will discuss his situation with his parents, then announce his decision. With the assistance of Zook, he's received a great deal of information from NFL scouts and general managers and has been told he'd go anywhere from late in the first round to sometime in the third if he elects to come out.

He said earlier in the week there were many reasons to consider returning for his senior season.

After Wednesday's game, he said the UF offense in 2003 will be more efficient with or without him.

"I think we're only going to get better," Grossman said. "We'll know the reads; we'll know what the coaches want. At times this year we looked like a great team."

There has been speculation throughout the season that Grossman was unhappy in offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher's offense, which has emphasized the short passing game and ball control. Grossman threw for 323 yards and two touchdowns in what might have been his last game Wednesday, but the ball was taken out of his hands in the closing seconds with UF driving for a potential tying touchdown.

Zaunbrecher called a trick play - an end-round, reverse pass thrown by wide receiver Vernell Brown intended for Grossman - that backfired when Brown was pressured and threw a desperation pass that was intercepted by Michigan linebacker Victor Hobson with only 54 seconds left in the game.

Grossman, however, said he liked the call and later gave a strong endorsement to Zook and the coaching staff in the post-game news conference.

"I think they are great coaches and great people to be around," he said. "They are always positive and always making sure you are moving a thousand miles an hour and working hard so it's going to pay off.

"We will get the system. It will click whether I'm here or not. I have a lot of faith in this coaching staff and they will get this program and take off with it. I think a lot of new coaches have their biggest success in their second year."

Grossman said leaving will be a tough call.

"I have loved my time with the Gators," he said. "I bleed orange and blue. I've had some of the best times of my life playing football at the University of Florida.

"It's going to be sad if I leave, but I had a great time and don't regret a thing, a throw, a pass, because that's what I wanted to do at that particular moment."

His teammates are hoping he'll return in 2003.

"Everybody on the team wants Rex to come back," junior cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "You never want to see a great quarterback leave early when he can come back next year and help the team out. He is a Heisman candidate quarterback, so you always want him to come back."

Whether Grossman returns or not, the Gators will be facing a rebuilding project after going a disappointing 8-5 in Zook's first season. It's Florida's worst record in 13 years and it's going to be a tough rebound because the Gators likely will have a severe shortage of defensive tackles and linebackers next season.

Five of the top seven defensive tackles are departing, along with starting linebackers Bam Hardmon and Mike Nattiel.

Offensively, the Gators will be in search of a marquee receiver to replace Taylor Jacobs and will have a new starting tailback with the departure of Earnest Graham, who ended his career with a 1,000-yard rushing season.

Zook said after Wednesday's game that an 8-5 record is not acceptable.

"Obviously, it's not where we have to be," Zook said. "That's not the standard that's been set here, and that's not the standard we're going to have here. But that's where we are right now.

"I'm excited about the future. I'm excited about the progression of the program. I'm excited about where we're going."

Ratliff said the players also are optimistic.

"This was a learning year for us," he said. "Anytime you come in and get a new offense and a new defense and you have young players stepping in to follow All-Americans, you're going to have a down season.

"But this team is in good hands. The coaches will have good game plans and we'll come out and compete every week. You can't base next year on what happened this year because it's going to be a whole new team and a whole new chemistry."

Zook is hoping a strong recruiting year will generate some momentum heading into spring practice. UF will be entertaining many top prospects from across the nation on campus in the coming weeks.

The January recruiting period could get off to a big start if the Gators gain a commitment from All-American quarterback Chris Leak from Charlotte, N.C. Leak is considering Florida, along with Florida State, North Carolina, Iowa and Southern Cal, and is expected to announce his college choice Sunday.

You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at or by calling 374-5022.

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