Zook has the look of confidence

As first days of practice in August go, there was nothing earth shattering or particularly eventful Monday morning as the Florida Gators took to the field to begin their preparation for the 2004 season which begins with Middle Tennessee State on September 4. Most of the players were in good shape, everyone seemed to hustle and since no one is in pads yet, it was really difficult to tell who's really ready to play.

But there was one significant difference in this year's opening day of practice than in the previous two seasons that Ron Zook as been the Head Gator in Charge (HGIC). Unlike the past two seasons, it wasn't tiring trying to keep up with Zook.

When Zook came to Gainesville in January of 2002, he instantly redefined theories of perpetual motion. As a recruiter, Zook seemed to be everywhere at once. Kids even remarked that they had never seen anything like it. On the practice field, both in the spring and the fall, Zook once again was the never ending source of energy, almost sprinting from one place to another, as much rah rah cheerleader as he was hands on coach.

Two straight wowsers of recruiting classes have done nothing to dispel the whispers that Zook is almost like a man possessed, capable of being everywhere at once. His practice demeanor the past two seasons has been quite the same as that of Zook the recruiter. He's run practices at a frenetic pace, again almost like being everywhere at once.

So when practice began Monday, the big surprise was Zook. Oh, he was hands on when it came to working with Coach Dan Disch and the defensive backs, one of two defensive positions where experience is lacking. While Zook and Disch took care of the defensive backs, defensive coordinator Charley Strong and Bill Miller handled the inexperienced linebackers.

Other than that hands on work with the defensive backs, however, Zook was fairly quiet. He didn't sprint from one group to the other. He wasn't nearly as vocal. More than one sideline observer, regulars for years at football practice, took note of Zook's quieter demeanor.

He still had things to say. When he spoke, he was still the perpetually encouraging Zooker although there were a couple of times when he got on players to step things up. Overall, the bulk of his time was spent as a careful observer, taking lots of notes, checking things out from different angles and studying his personnel and coaches as they went through one drill after another.

This is not the extreme makeover edition Ron Zook that we're seeing here. Instead it is the maturing of the head coach. His confident attitude shows in the way he's carrying himself on the field. For the first time since he arrived in January 2002, Ron Zook looks totally comfortable being the head football coach at the University of Florida.

When he took over the job, he had no head coaching experience, just years of working under a lot of good people like Mike Gottfried, Johnny Majors, John Cooper, Steve Spurrier and Bill Cowher among others. Perhaps the first two years here were spent finding himself and growing into the position.

Certainly, he's had his share of the criticism, some of it deserved, much of it the result of fans all to eager to consider that for him to be successful, he has to be given a chance to build the team in his likeness, not that of his highly successful predecessor. Through it all, rather than shy away from the pressure, he's embraced it, continually reminding people that pressure and high expectations make this the job that it is.

When Zook took over at Florida in January of 2002, there was little available time to win over the football team. First priority was to salvage recruiting, and while the first class was not ranked in the top ten, it has produced some quality football players such as Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn. Winning over the holdovers from the Spurrier era began in the spring and players saw a far different coach than the one they had seen before. While Spurrier was laid back and at times aloof, Zook was just the opposite, in-your-face energetic with a bottomless well of enthusiasm. .

His practice demeanor and game demeanor were fiery. His press conferences were remarkable in that no one could ever remember a Florida coach who could talk that fast. While Spurrier was the epitome of self confidence within the shell of a good ole boy from the Tennessee hills, Zook was Captain Caffeine, talking non-stop to anyone who would listen.

Recruiting classes two and three have been outstanding, producing a roster that is now predominately populated by players he has recruited to UF, players who bought into him from day one and who remain intensely loyal to him. Three springs and now a third fall practice have allowed him to build the foundation the way that he wants it. The Good Ship Zook, version three, will have a look and feel that is very much the reflection of his vision of how football should be played at the University of Florida.

So as day one of fall practice concluded, there was the coach, walking calmly across the field to a bevy of reporters ready to ask him dozens of questions. He had a very confident look on his face and in his body language. This was not the Ron Zook of 2002 or 2003. The enthusiasm was still there as were the positive thoughts, but what had changed was the overall manner in which the enthusiasm and positives were delivered.

There was confidence in his speech, just as there was confidence in the way he handled himself in practice. He has been the head coach the previous two seasons, but now, in 2004, it really is HIS team. The players believe in him. He believes in them.

The talent level is higher than it has been at any time since his arrival, but with better talent and two years of experience come the expectations. Once again, the bar is set high. The level of expectation is where it always is at Florida so there will be no mulligan this year. He didn't ask for a mulligan the first two years. It's highly doubtful he will need it this year.

As fall practice begins, Ron Zook has the look of a coach who sees good times on the horizon. If that confidence is transferred into the attitudes and demeanor of this football team, it could very well be a special season.

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