GAMEDAY: Zook says "TEAM" is focus for Gators

During those uncertain moments last season when the Florida Gators found themselves at 3-3 and coming off a second loss in the Southeastern Conference to Ole Miss, Coach Ron Zook saw his team unite in the face of adversity, reeling off five straight wins and proving they had come together as a real team.

The unity developed in that five game stretch carried over to the spring and fall preseason practice when the team voted to have the word "TEAM" on the backs of practice jerseys instead of their names. It's a concept that the Gators considered even for game jerseys this season said Zook Thursday night during his weekly Gator Hotline show from Gator's Dockside in Gainesville.

While player's names will still be on the jersey, there will be a sticker that says "TEAM" on their helmets this year.

"These guys understand that the success they have as individuals is in direct proportion to the success of the team," Zook said, emphasizing that he is very pleased that his players have all bought into the all for one concept. "You gotta have good players to win, but it's not always the best players that win but the best team. I like our team." <>The Gators will be opening their season Saturday at 1 p.m. against Eastern Michigan (1-0) at The Swamp. The season opener is a week late arriving due to last week's cancellation of the scheduled season opener with Middle Tennessee State due to Hurricane Frances. Zook held a team meeting after the cancellation of the MTSU game, then gave the players Thursday through Sunday off.

The Gators regrouped on Monday and though foul weather has kept the team indoors most of the week, the practices have been focused and spirited. It is a team that is ready to play game one.

"We've had a great week of practice," said Zook. "Our guys want to play and we want to coach. We're glad the game's moved up (it was originally scheduled for 6 p.m.) so that we can get out there and play instead of sitting around and waiting a few hours for game time."

Eastern Michigan is from the Mid-America Conference, the same conference that Zook played in as a collegian at Miami (Ohio). Although EMU is not highly regarded, Zook mentioned that the Eagles are from the MAC, a conference in which he's played and is very familiar, noting that the league plays a tough brand of football.

"Really, it makes no difference who we play though," he said. "We're just going to focus on what we have to do. We just look forward to the kickoff. We've worked hard. We've had a good offseason and preseason. There's no question that we're a much better football team than what we were a year ago this time. We're so far ahead of where we were last year." <>Answering questions from the audience at Gator's and from the statewide telephone lines, Zook said that there will be times this year that both Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn will be lined up together in the same backfield, that he looks for Dallas Baker to have a breakout season, and that Chris Leak is a much improved quarterback from last year.

"Chris Leak doesn't get too high or get too low," said Zook. "He's been the same kid from day one since he got here that he is right now. He's worked hard to earn the respect of everyone and he's gotten better every practice. [On the field this year] he's not the same guy you saw a year ago."

Zook said that Leak has benefited from the one on one tutoring he's getting from quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher. He said that Zaunbrecher has been able to focus on getting Leak better prepared for the season since handing over the offensive coordinator reigns to Larry Fedora. Zook praised Fedora for his ability to run a multi-tempo game that is quite disruptive to defenses trying to establish a rhythm. <>"One thing that kills you on defense [against teams that run a multi-tempo attack] is if you don't have time to get into a rhythm," said Zook. "It's hard for a defensive coordinator to call plays and it's hard to get your substitutions in."

Zook commented that the offensive line is the most experienced and deepest since he arrived at UF in 2002. <>"We feel like our offensive line is the best it has been in terms of our ability to protect. We've gone almost 2000 plays (in the preseason practices) so we've learned quite a bit about us and we're confident. We feel our offensive line is the best that it's been since we've been here." <>

Defensively, Zook said he feels confident that the team will be able to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the front seven and that the secondary, while inexperienced, is talented.

"Jarvis Herring's been around for something like 500 plays and Corey Bailey's played a lot more than 500 plays since he's been here," said Zook. "They're good safeties. Our corners are where we don't have a lot of experience, but we have some talented players." <>Zook spoke highly of how hard Vernell Brown has worked since moving back fulltime to defensive back after spending the last two seasons at receiver by necessity.

"He's not a big guy but he's tough as nails and he's got talent," said Zook of the 5-8, 155-pounder. "He's had a great preseason. Reynoldo Hill has done some good things at corner. Dee Webb has really come on in the last two weeks. Deshawn Carter will get his opportunities to play as well." <>

From an injury standpoint, Zook said the team is in very good shape with only a few nicks and bruises. In preseason drills there were only two big injuries, a knee for linebacker Richard Brown who is out for the season, and a broken foot for tight end Darrell Carpenter, who will be returning in a few weeks. He noted that tight end Dane Guthrie is back to practicing at full speed and the week off helped linebacker Todd McCullough's ankle to heal so he's ready to go on Saturday, too.

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