BOWL GAME FALLOUT

Focusing on the future


Florida freshman wide receiver Andre Caldwell is tackled after a short gain against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. The Gators are looking to bounce back next season from Thursday's devastating loss.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 11:46 p.m.
Sometimes the best way to get over a devastating loss is to go ahead and start looking ahead to the next game, or, in this case, the next season. And that's what the Florida Gators are trying to do in the aftermath of Thursday's debacle against Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
"Next year is going to be a different year," true freshman defensive tackle Marcus Thomas said. "We don't have the respect we used to have. The Florida Gators, . . . people used to get scared when they came in. It's going to change. Next year is going to be a totally different Florida team."
In building for the future, the Gators agree Thursday's 37-17 thrashing is somewhat of a setback. But they're insisting one bad performance isn't going to distract from or tear down the positives that transpired in the middle of the 2003 season, when UF put together an impressive five-game winning streak that included wins over Top-10 teams LSU and Georgia.
The Gators still say they're heading in the right direction under head coach Ron Zook.
"Even though we had the same record (8-5), we had a better season than we had last season," senior offensive guard Shannon Snell said. "We had that five-game winning streak, and we had a good year.
"I think the Gators are well on their way to being back into national title contention. I think it took coach Zook two years to implement his system, and now the guys are starting to pick up on it. He's got a great group of freshmen and, knowing him, he's going to have another great recruiting class. Things will be good here again."
The pressure, however, is certain to continue mounting on Zook. Mainly because UF's worst performance of the season came only a few days after Gator coaching legend Steve Spurrier resigned from the Washington Redskins, and Spurrier now plans to take a year off before pursuing another head coaching opportunity.
Throughout the coming months, there will be a great deal of speculation (and a million Internet rumors) about Spurrier and the possibility of him returning to Florida. Zook has three years left in a contract that pays him about $1.1 million per season. Athletic director Jeremy Foley has talked about offering Zook an extension in the next few weeks. A few early setbacks for Zook next season, and there likely will be an outcry for Foley to make the call to Crescent Beach.
The players, who have backed Zook the past two seasons, say the specter of Spurrier won't be a distraction.
"Everybody can see coach Zook has the program going in the right direction," senior wide receiver Kelvin Kight said. "(The talk about Spurrier) won't be that bad. Coach Zook is bringing in a lot of players who have a lot of talent. Every position has a backup who is capable of starting anywhere else in the nation. The program is going in the right direction."
Freshman linebacker Channing Crowder said the Gators want Zook to be their coach in the future.
"When Spurrier wasn't (available as a possible candidate), people were still talking about getting rid of Zook. There were Internet sites saying fire Ron Zook. I've never seen that at any other school," Crowder said. "Zook has been in the spotlight coming in after Spurrier. If John Madden came in and coached after Spurrier, they would have criticized him. Zook isn't Spurrier. That's what it was.
"Coach Zook is more than just a great recruiter. He's a great coach who is involved in every aspect of this football team. We're ready to get to work again. Next season starts now. We're going to be a better team next season."
Now that his second UF season is over, Zook will play to his strength - recruiting. Another priority, he said, will be to re-evaluate the 2003 season and come up with perhaps a better plan for 2004.
"As I've said all season, and I still believe this, we're a much improved team from last year even though we didn't show it (with the 8-5 record)," Zook said. "There's no question in my mind we're on the right track. There's no question in my mind that we're going to get where we need to be. A few things (different) here or a few things there and everything changes, (and the record would show we're a better team). This is still a learning process. We've had a lot of great things happen this year.
"(The Iowa loss) is the only time we didn't play that well. We're going to go back and evaluate everything we do. Do we practice too much? Do we practice too hard? Do we not practice enough to be effective? The coaching staff and I will sit down and find out what we have to do. We'll bounce back from this."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by calling 374-5022 or by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com.

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