FOOTBALL: Speed kills emphasis at skill positions

It is the speed kills emphasis that Coach Ron Zook has stressed since becoming head coach of the Florida Gators that will provide the most marked difference in the 2004 edition compared to the first two teams of the Zook era. From his first press conference, Zook made it perfectly clear that the emphasis in recruiting would be speed and three recruiting classes have elevated the overall team speed to the best it has been in years.

The obvious improvement in team speed will provide the most glaring difference in this year's team, and the place it is most evident is at the skill positions.

The dramatic improvment in speed at the skill positions should allow the Gators to find mismatches against nearly every opponent on the schedule. All the elements are in place for this to be the best and most explosive offense of the Zook era.

Today we take a look at the skill positions:

QUARTERBACK: The new and improved version of Chris Leak is light years ahead of Chris Leak as a freshman. The improvement will be most visible in the patience he shows as he surveys the field. The big numbers posted in two scrimmages aren't accidental nor are they big simply because it's the second unit defense. The numbers are big because he is patient enough to see the entire field. As a freshman, he would go to the first open receiver he saw. That produced decent numbers, but the stats should be ever so improved this year as his patience should allow him to wait to take more shots downfield. Leak could actually end up throwing less but finishing with better stats in terms of yardage and touchdowns. Leak will be helped by being under center more often this year. The threat of the running game out of the I will open things up down the field after play fakes, which will be a larger part of the game plan. A couple of other things to look for are the way that offensive coordinator Larry Fedora has Leak rolling slightly left or right to create passing lanes. Leak's only 6-0 tall, so the slight movement will allow him to see more of the field. Leak also throws very well on the move so these small rollouts will pressure linebackers to stay close to prevent the threat of the run. Gavin Dickey's foray into baseball seems to have made him a better passer. He brings everything over the top now, so he's not underthrowing passes as he did so often last year when he was mired on the third team. Dickey still holds the ball a little bit too long, trusting his arm far too much instead of letting his feet get him out of trouble or throwing the ball away, but overall, his decision making is much improved. He is the best running threat among the quarterbacks. Justin Midgett has a strong, accurate arm, but he's been plagued in the preseason by soreness in his elbow. When 100% healthy, Midgett has big play potential. Don't be surprised to see him make a move up the depth chart to second team once he overcomes the elbow problems. Fourth team quarterback Cornelius Ingram has a world of potential, but he will redshirt in football and by October 10, will be released to basketball where he has a chance to be a bigtime off the bench scorer for Coach Bill Donovan.

RUNNING BACKS: This is a position that will evoke memories of 1984 when the Gators rotated the fresh legs of Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton and John L Williams to produce the most devastating running game in the Southeastern Conference. By the end of that 1984 season, the Gators could pound any team into submission. With the foursome of Ciatrick Fason, DeShawn Wynn, Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson operating behind an improved offensive line, Florida's running game will be the best it's been since 1996 when the Gators hurled Fred Taylor, Eli Williams and Terry Jackson at opponents, and by the end of the year, people might be making comparisons to the 1984 bunch. Fason and Wynn will be the solid 1-2 punch with Thornton and Manson bringing in electric changes of pace. Fason is a pure breakaway threat who can make even four-yard runs exciting. Wynn has tremendous power and once he gets in the clear, he has the ability to accelerate and take the ball to the house. Thornton is a nice combination of moves and power, while Manson has an extra gear he can kick in at any moment. Look for the Gators to throw more in the first half of every game to get a decent lead, then in the second half, use the formula that worked so well in 1984, then again in the championship season of 1996, which is to pound the ball in the second half. Don't be surprised if this group combines for more than 2500 rushing yards. All four have shown the ability to catch the ball, adding another dimension to the offense.

WIDE RECEIVERS: This is the area where we will see the most improvement on the offensive side of the ball. The added dimension of breakaway speed promises to keep safeties on their heels this year instead of allowing them to creep toward the line of scrimmage before every snap as we saw last year. Fedora has shown in the preseason a willingness to use wide receivers over the middle and he's brought the clearing routes back into the package. In the previous two seasons, the middle of the field was the domain of the tight ends. Wide receivers ran shorter routes that had a tendency to be run from the hashmarks outward. By bringing back the clearing routes, Fedora has allowed wide receivers the kind of space in the middle of the field where they can make catches without so much fear of catastrophic hits. The extra space created should make for some very long plays in the middle of the field. The receiver package that has been most productive in the preseason has Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius on the outside with OJ Small working in the slot. In the four receiver package, Bubba Caldwell is the other slot receiver. Baker is the most consistent deep threat, and with this height (6-3) and leaping ability, he is a mismatch for most corners. Cornelius has deep threat speed, but excellent running skills after the catch. In preseason drills, he's been the one who has been consistently able to turn a 10-yard catch into a 30-yard gain. In the preseason, Small has caught everything thrown his way. He is the most dependable pass catcher, and when the Gators have to have a first down, he's the one most likely to get the ball. For the second straight year, he's improved his speed and route running to the point that he will be the primary option on a lot of plays. Caldwell shows flashes of greatness but hasn't put it all together consistently. He is the best overall combination of speed, size and running ability after the catch. Chad Jackson and Mike McIntosh will get their opportunities as outside receivers. Both have had excellent preseasons. Jackson is the strongest of the outside receivers, while McIntosh, a true freshman, has the potential to become a great playmaker. If Reggie Lewis is healthy, he gives another inside option with speed and tremendous ability to do produce big yards after the catch. Kenneth Tookes has had an excellent preseason, but with so many outstanding wideouts, he will have to make the most of limited opportunities. Walkon Kyle Morgan has been a pleasant surprise, showing great hands and nice ability to catch the ball in a crowd.

TIGHT END: There is no Ben Troupe or Aaron Walker in this group. The Gators have gotten a lot of mileage out of the tight end position the past two seasons, but this year, we'll likely see tight ends back to their traditional role of being blockers first. Markell Thompson (6-6, 265) and David Kenner (6-3, 255) both have NFL size and they are exceptional power blockers, but they've not shown much consistency catching the ball. True freshman Dane Guthrie is a nice combination of size and speed but he's been dinged up a bit, so he's fallen a little behind. True freshman Tate Casey is the best pass receiver among this group, but he's very thin and needs some bulk. He could see some action as a receiver in certain packages and he will be a special teams demon, but he's basically a year away from seeing his number called as a primary option in the passing game. Troupe was a human highlight reel and Walker was solid in finding holes in a zone. Don't look for anything like that from the tight ends this season. More often than not, expect this position to be an extension of the offensive line.

TOMORROW: The offensive and defensive lines.


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