2004 needs to be year football team grows up

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 1:55 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.

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