Getting better is chance Zook will have to take


Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 12:00 a.m.
The popular this-is-a-young-team-that's-getting-better-every-week theme worked for the Gators through much of the season before disintegrating with the bashing Iowa provided in the Outback Bowl. Clearly, the Gators regressed on the first day, in their first performance, of the new year.
But Ron Zook, armed with a recent contract extension and putting together what he expects will be another banner recruiting class, plans on reviving that theme for 2004.
Next season's team, he says, will get better as it grows and gains experience. He's adamant about that, just as he was about the 2003 team, which did steadily improve after a potentially crippling 3-3 start.
Zook is already getting fired up about 2004.
"Looking at the roster, I feel good, I really do," Zook said. "We'll be a better football team. I'm excited. We'll be a better football team than we were last year. I said the same thing a year ago and we were a better team. I'm going to say the same thing again. We're going to be better (in 2004). There's no doubt in my mind."
The Gators have a chance. Outstanding freshman quarterback Chris Leak should continue to develop, and returning players accounted for 62.5 percent of the scoring last season. UF also has 19 players coming back who started games in 2003.
To get better, the Gators are going to have to improve in some critical areas and fill some serious holes created by the departure of 14 senior starters. And if Zook thought last year's team was young, this one will be even younger. When spring practice opens in March, more than half of the roster will be made up of sophomores and redshirt freshmen. UF will have an even more youthful appearance in the fall with the arrival of the true freshman class.
The Gators certainly should be able to learn from 2003. For one, they're going to have to figure out how to win at home again. This is a team that was good enough to beat eventual co-national champion LSU in Baton Rouge (and Arkansas in Fayetteville) but lost three of six games in The Swamp. All five losses came in the state of Florida. The three home wins came against San Jose State, Division I-AA Florida A&M and SEC cellar dweller Vanderbilt.
Given UF's unprecedented home success through the 1990s, the failure to defend the home turf has become a disturbing trend over the past two seasons and must be reversed if the Gators are going to continue their perceived upward climb under Zook.
The Swamp regained some of its magic in the second half of the FSU game, but it wasn't enough to help the Gators fend off the Seminoles in the closing seconds. With a more favorable home schedule in 2004, the Gators need to run the table in The Swamp.
Florida also must improve its overall defensive play - especially in prevent situations trying to protect leads - and show much greater overall consistency on offense (and start using those fast young receivers and let Leak throw the ball down the field more).
The defense gave up too many big plays (most of them in the passing game) and failed to protect fourth-quarter leads against Miami and Florida State (and nearly lost the big lead at Arkansas). UF also allowed too many teams to control the ball and the clock, which wore down the defense and kept the Gator offense idling on the sideline.
Offensively, despite the emergence of Leak, the Gators often struggled to find any rhythm and failed to consistently put together scoring drives.
Of course, the biggest question heading into the spring is how the Gators will replace 14 senior starters, including the entire secondary of Keiwan Ratliff, Guss Scott, Daryl Dixon and Johnny Lamar. UF also must find replacements on the left side of the offensive line for Max Starks and Shannon Snell, at tight end and receiver for Ben Troupe, Kelvin Kight and Carlos Perez, and at defensive end for Darrell Lee and Bobby McCray.
Replenishing the secondary will be a huge spring priority.
"We have to make a lot of improvement," Zook said. "I think our secondary will be fine. I think we'll be a much-improved defense."
You can reach Robbie Andreu at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5022.
Position prospectus The Sun's Robbie Andreu looks at who might fill some of the holes on the Gators' roster in 2004:
  • SECONDARY: The likely starters at cornerback entering the spring will be true sophomore Dee Webb and junior college transfer Reynaldo Hill, who will be a senior. Webb and Hill have excellent speed and athletic ability and impressed the coaches in practice last fall. There's only one problem: Neither saw much playing time and both will have to feel their way through what promises to be a difficult learning process. Other candidates for playing time are sophomore Nick Brooks and junior Deshawn Carter, two players who spent 2003 on the scout team, and twins Tremaine and Jermaine McCollum, special teams players last season.
    At strong safety, senior Cory Bailey, who has been a starter in UF's nickel and dime coverages, will take over for Guss Scott. Although he's not as physical as Scott, Bailey has some cover skills - and a great deal of experience. Senior Tre Orr also could be a factor.
    The No. 1 free safety heading into the spring will be junior Jarvis Herring, who saw considerable playing time behind Dixon last season.
    The Gators also are trying to sign some defensive backs who could figure into the playing rotation.
  • RECEIVER: Replacing All-SEC tight end Ben Troupe figures to be a problem. The coaches were hoping junior college transfer David Kenner would gain experience behind Troupe last season and then be ready to take over in 2004. But Kenner battled injuries, struggled with the offensive system and saw virtually no important playing time last season. He'll have to make up a great deal of ground in the spring to be a factor. UF is hoping it will get a boost from junior college signee Markell Thompson, who will participate in spring drills. As for replacing Kight and Perez, the Gators think they'll be even better (and faster) at wide receiver next season. Senior starter O.J. Small returns, junior Dallas Baker was impressive in the Outback Bowl and true sophomore Andre Caldwell has big-time potential. Chad Jackson, another true sophomore, should be ready to play now, along with a strong group of redshirt sophomores, including Jemalle Cornelius, Reggie Lewis and Kenneth Tookes.
  • OFFENSIVE LINE: Starks and Snell were three-year starters who brought stability to the left side and will be difficult to replace. The Gators, however, have some linemen with experience who will try to fill the void. Tavarus Washington started the opener at left tackle last season and figures to replace Starks at tackle. If he can't handle the position, senior Jonathan Colon, a former starter, could move from right tackle and take over. Redshirt freshman Carlton Medder also is a promising prospect who will get a close look in the spring. The possible replacements for Snell at guard are senior Anthony Guerrero, senior Billy Griffin and sophomore Ryan Carter.
  • DEFENSIVE END: McCray had a very good senior season, while Lee showed some flashes of his potential in 2003. Although they'll be missed, the coaches feel the Gators actually could be a little faster and more athletic at end in 2004. Senior Travis Harris, a former linebacker, started seven games last season and figures to be the starter at one end. He's talked about possibly moving back to linebacker, but the coaches likely will keep him at end, where he could be an impact player. The other probable starter heading into the spring is sophomore Steven Harris, who saw playing time last season and has, according to the coaches, a huge upside. Harris and Harris figure to get a formidable challenge in the spring from redshirt freshmen Jarvis Moss, one of the nation's top defensive players coming out of high school a year ago, and Tranell "Tree" Morant. Moss has gained about 20 pounds of muscle since he's been here and is extremely quick. He likely would have seen extensive playing time last season had he not been slowed by a hip injury. Morant is a big, athletic player who also came close to seeing action as a true freshman.
  • THE LAST WORD: If the Gators can adequately fill the holes in the secondary and on the offensive and defensive lines (and regain their winning touch in The Swamp), they should continue showing progress under Zook and contend again in the SEC East race. UF has a rising star at quarterback, plenty of young offensive skill talent (some of it proven), and a strong defensive nucleus with experience at tackle and linebacker. , and a schedule that should be far less daunting than last season's.
    It all adds up to this: The Gators have a chance in 2004.
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