Filling the Voids

Although Florida is praised for being a team of youthful talent, it won't be easy replacing the impact made by the senior class....

TAMPA -- Standing amongst the reporters after nearly every practice, Florida seniors Keiwan Ratliff and Shannon Snell kick out quotes faster than the questions can be asked.

They'll talk about everything. They'll rave about anything.

So quiz the Gators' most popular motor mouths about the future of Florida football, and you're certain to get the usual discourse on the abundance of up-and-coming talent.

"The Gators will be fine," Snell says. "This program is on its way to greatness."

But then, once both have left for the day, the sobering silence causes another realization: Without these seniors, it's much quieter than you'd think.

In all, the Gators will lose a staggering 14 starters after Thursday's Outback Bowl. Ratliff? Gone. Snell? No more. Ben Troupe, Bobby McCray, Kelvin Kight, Guss Scott Daryl Dixon. All five? All out.

And forget the lost media savvy of Snell and Ratliff. These concerns dig much deeper.

For a team so often labeled as a young squad, the Gators' biggest off-season task will become finding a way to keep from having the air knocked out of them by the departures.

Because like that air, the talent of these seniors may not be appropriately appreciated until they're gone for good.

"We had some young guys coming into some key positions, so people started calling us a young team," said Kight, one of two starting wide receivers on the way out. "A perception like that can cause some problems if you aren't careful."

Earlier this month, while Florida was still preparing for the bowl in Gainesville, Zook held the seniors out of the end of one practice and the start of another.

The intended purpose was to allow the youngsters an opportunity to gain some valuable repetitions. However, it may have also provided another critical lesson.

"After everyone had left, I took another look," Snell said. "You don't really realize it, but it seems like you're either a freshman or a senior on this team. There's not much gray area."

So while marquee true freshmen Channing Crowder and Chris Leak may keep the optimism at its peak for the program's future, the overall youthful perception may be a bit skewed.

That's not to say the Gators are in serious trouble – the talent at Florida is certainly deeper than just the senior class. But that talent will be forced to make a rapid emergence.

The biggest gaps will be found in the secondary and at defensive end. Losing all four starters at cornerback and safety will cause coaches to look toward such freshmen as Dee Webb and Reynaldo Hill to fill the void.

And as Ratliff points out, he too had to step up for another major talent when former Gator Lito Sheppard bolted early for the NFL.

"That was hard because I didn't start many games, and I played sparingly in nickel and dime," Ratliff said. "Because I was stepping in for somebody of his stature, people expected me to make plays and score touchdowns on punts and interceptions."

As a result, Ratliff has stressed to the younger class they should refrain from forcing big plays during their early career. Instead, let the highlights take care of themselves, he says.

"We have so much experience and inexperience," Ratliff said. "But we brought those young guys in with a group of mature seniors, and it's allowed them to grow faster."

By confronting the issue before the senior class has departed, Florida may have turned a potential disaster into a much-needed growth spurt. Even though 14 true freshmen have seen action this season, the Gators are being careful of allowing the ill-perceived youth-moment to keep them from progressing.

As a result, the seniors aren't concerned with their future alma mater.

"The young guys are going to step up next year, do doubt," Kight said. "You can just tell by the way they work during practice. They're going to be great players."

Sophomore Ciatrick Fason – one of the few stars who will be an upperclassman on next year's team – has the highest hopes, as well.

"With the team we've got coming back, Fason said, "we should be up for the SEC championship or the national championship."

At the Gators' final practice before leaving for Tampa, several seniors spoke to their predecessors with some parting words. The messages were the same.

"There's going to be some surprises next year," senior linebacker Reid Fleming said. "Their potential is limitless. There's so much talent. A lot of people don't see it because it's on the practice field. But it's there."

With one more game, Florida's senior class will attempt to leave the program with a win. Just as importantly, they'll aim to leave four years of lessons as well.

"That's why we try to rub off everything we can right now on those younger guys, let them feed off of us," Ratliff said. "They can step right in and do some of the things we did. All we can do at this point is lead by example for one more game.

"Then, the future is up to them."

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