If juniors return, Florida could be a dynasty


Published: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When a team wins a second national title in three seasons, the celebration lasts, oh, about 12 minutes.

The sophisticated sports society already craves the goods on the 2009 Florida Gators. That answer hinges largely on the NFL projections of three special players in the next couple of days.

Quarterback Tim Tebow, wide receiver Percy Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes just led the Florida Gators to a national title over Oklahoma late Thursday night in Dolphin Stadium, but now they face a big-picture decision more difficult than which Sooner to tackle or run over.

The three juniors will get on the phone with NFL types such as New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio, both buddies of Florida Coach Urban Meyer, to weigh whether it's worth it to make millions in the pros or be adored by millions of college fans.

The potential return of Tebow which has been predicted by numerous Tebow favorites such as his high school coach, Craig Howard, and former Gator great Danny Wuerffel could thrust the Gators into next year's preseason No. 1 spot over Texas, USC and Oklahoma, all teams with NFL-talent quarterbacks.

Howard, Tebow's former coach at Nease High School who speaks with him often, told the Orlando Sentinel he'd be "shocked" if Tebow left school for the NFL draft.

Harvin said the Gators are serious repeat contenders with or without his playmaking ability.

"We feel we're a dynasty," Harvin said. "There aren't many teams that win two out of three. Our whole defense is coming back, we lose a couple of linemen, two or three receivers, but most of us are coming back."

Many consider Harvin too talented to stick around, and his projection from the NFL draft advisory board will likely tell him he's a first-round draft pick. His 171 total offensive yards against Oklahoma on a fractured right ankle probably didn't hurt his stock.

Spikes also could be a first-rounder, a distinction he says would be hard to pass up, but defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said he expects Spikes to return.

The three stars have considered mirroring "the '04s," the Florida basketball recruiting class that won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007. Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Al Horford returned as juniors to reign over the NCAA Tournament once again.

"We've talked about that a lot lately," Spikes said.

Don't expect the 2009 Gators to give up many points. Even if Spikes leaves, the Gators will return 10 starters on a defense that just held one of the most prolific offenses in college football history to 40 points less than its average.

The Gators stopped Oklahoma twice from within the 10-yard line and forced accurate quarterback Sam Bradford into two interceptions.

The talented secondary, all underclassmen this season, should improve with another year. Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins and safeties Ahmad Black and Major Wright showcased big-play ability all season.

The defensive line is consistent up the middle and ferocious on the edge under defensive line coach Dan McCarney, the former Iowa State head coach. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham have NFL potential and are back for another year.

The Gators would miss Spikes' vocal leadership and menacing hits, but the combination of A.J. Jones, Dustin Doe, Ryan Stamper and Brandon Hicks breeds experience. Each player has started at times this season.

Tebow's return could spark a third consecutive season of averaging 40 or more points per game, but the future could be bright without him. Redshirt freshman backup quarterback John Brantley was one of the country's best high school quarterbacks two years ago and impressed in limited action in 2008.

Running backs Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody, all underclassmen, combined for almost 1,700 yards this year.

The loss of senior Louis Murphy's team-leading 655 yards at wide receiver hurts, but the potential of Deonte Thompson, Riley Cooper and David Nelson might compensate.

Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, twin sophomores, have locked up the interior offensive line positions along with redshirt sophomore Carl Johnson, but Jason Watkins and Phil Trautwein manned the tackle positions for two straight seasons. Look for redshirt freshman James Wilson to take over one of those spots.

Florida Coach Urban Meyer isn't ready to place a forecast on next year's team, but he's confident in what he'll see come August.

"We'll see who comes back," Meyer said. "Regardless, this team, it's not going to be like last year (9-4 record). It will not be like that. I don't know our record because we've got to stay healthy and most other things. But as far as the program, it's much better than it was two years ago as far as the group of young players coming up. So how good? We could be very good next year."

If the threesome returns, it's still difficult to outdistance that hype machine out West.

"USC always gets that (preseason No. 1)," Spikes said.

Percy Harvin

Buzz: A full year of health in 2009 would likely guarantee a third consecutive season of 40 or more points per game for Florida.

Brandon Spikes

Buzz: His vocal leadership and tone-setting hits breathed confidence into a young defense, so the Gators could use his guidance once again.

Tim Tebow

Buzz: If he returns, the Gators should be the country's preseason No. 1 in his quest to become college football's all-time best player.

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