Countdown To Kickoff

There is an "Air" of excitement this season at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville and amongst the Gators fans throughout the country. Here is a preview of the 2002 Florida Gators.

When Ron Zook took over as head football coach at the University of Florida in early January of 2002 he hit the ground running, his up-tempo style bringing an air of excitement and enthusiasm for the Gators. If spring football is an indicator, the Gators will be an attacking, high-energy team as they take on one of the most demanding schedules in school history.

Florida returns 52 lettermen and 10 starters from the 2001 team that finished 10-2, ranked third in the nation after beating Atlantic Coast Conference champion Maryland, 56-23, in the Orange Bowl. The Gators' 10 wins extended their streak of nine or more wins per year to 12 seasons, a SEC record. Florida also established SEC marks for consecutive years ranked in the final top 15 of the polls (12) and consecutive January bowl appearances (nine).

The Gator offense, which returns five starters and 22 lettermen, will continue its wide-open attacking approach, with attempts to improve the running game and overall balance. The offense will be headlined by Heisman runner-up Rex Grossman, a talented back field of Earnest Graham and Ran Carthon and big-play receiver Taylor Jacobs.

The Florida defense features five returning starters and 26 returning lettermen. Ian Scott and Tron LaFavor are the returnees up front, Bryon "Bam" Hardmond and Mike Nattiel are starters back in the middle, and two-time All-SEC selection Todd Johnson anchors the secondary.

Florida will look for continued balance from the offensive and defensive unit after the Gators joined Miami last year as the only two schools in the nation to appear in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense in final NCAA statistics. The Gators will hope to improve on their -4 turnover margin from 2001 (national ranking of 79th) after being +18 in that category in 2000 (second best in the nation).

The 2002 Gator schedule likely will rank among the nation's toughest, if not the toughest. Florida

plays seven games this fall against teams that played in a bowl game last year (Miami, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State) with those teams posting a 5-2 mark in bowl play.

The Gators will face three of the top five teams in the nation, as well as five of the top 13 teams in the preseason rankings. Two defending conference champions come to "The Swamp" -- Miami (Big East) and LSU (SEC). Defending national champion Miami joins the Florida schedule as the 12th game, which is allowed this year and next.

The good news for the 2002 slate: UF will play a school record seven home games this year, where the Gators are 68-5 at "The Swamp" since 1990, including 39-3 vs. SEC foes. Florida fans, who have been responsible for 77 consecutive sell outs since 1989, will dodge construction dust at Ben Hill Griffen Stadium as a three-year expansion project enters its second year. The $50 million privately funded renovation, which began in May 2001 and will be completed in August 2003, will add more than 2,900 chairback seats and double the size of the press box.

The Offense

The Florida offense returns five starters and 22 lettermen from a 2001 unit that ranked first in the nation in passing offense (405.2 ypg), second in total offense (527.5 ypg) and second in scoring (43.8 ppg). While the Spurrier offensive game plan is now in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, new offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher's offense put up some impressive numbers in his final year at Marshall. The Thunderding Herd offense ranked third in the nation in total offense (505.0 ppg) and passing offense (350.1 ygp, while the team's passing efficiency of 165.6 ranked second nationally behind the Gators' 170.1.

Florida will look to improve on its balance on offense after passing on 58.9 percent of plays from scrimmage vs. 41.1 percent running plays last year. The Florida offense also hopes to protect the football better in 2002 after ranking 85th in the nation in turnovers (13 interceptions and 13 fumbles lost) last year.

The Gators do hope to pick up where the 2001 unit left off with production in the red zone. UF scored 90 percent of the time in the redzone, including the last 26 times inside the 20.

The Gator offense starts with quarterback Rex Grossman, who returns after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore in 2001. The record-setting passer will once again team with

wide receiver Taylor Jacobs, voted the MVP of last season's Orange Bowl victory after his performance of 10 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns.

One of the strongest positions on the offensive unit at the end of spring practice was running back.

Senior Earnest Graham and junior Ran Carthon give the Gators a one-two combination with the ability to run the football, catch the football out of the backfield and block. Graham has rushed for 1,980 career yards, and Florida's only two losses last season came in games he missed due to injuries.

Probably the key to how far the Gator offense can travel in 2002 will be the revamped offensive line. Florida lost three starters in seniors Zac Zedalis, an All-SEC center, along with guard Tommy Moody and tackle Mike Pearson, first team All-America choice as a junior, who decided to forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Max Starks and Shannon Snell finished the spring as the lone returning starters back in that role in 2002.

The Defense

The defensive unit returns five starters and 26 lettermen from the 2001 team that yielded 290.2 yards per game, first in the SEC and ninth in the nation, led the SEC in scoring defense (14.1 points per game), allowed only 163 first downs, first in the SEC, and surrendered only five touchdown passes, tying Miami for the fewest in the nation. First-year defensive coordinator John Thompson will implement an attack, with its ultimate goal to complicate and confuse opponents, but remain simple for the players.

Much of the defensive units success last year - they ranked in the top 15 in the nation in four major categories (scoring defense - 5th, 14.1 ppg; total defense - 9th, 290.2 ypg; rushing defense - 12th 100.1 ypg; passing efficiency defense - 13th, 101.1) - was due to the experience of the unit entering the year. The 2001 defensive team entered the season with 205 combined starts. The 2002 unit will enter the season with 65 combined starts.

Seniors Mike Nattiel and Bam Hardmon, returning starters at outside linebacker, have emerged as defensive playmakers and leaders, both on the field and in the off-season. They join tackles Ian Scott and Tron LaFavor as returning starters in the front seven. The Gator secondary will be anchored by two-time first-team All-SEC selection Todd Johnson at the free safety post.

The Gators will have to replace four key players in the front seven - two starters at defensive end (All-America Alex Brown and Kennard Ellis) and two standout middle linebackers (All-America Andra Davis and Travis Carrroll). The secondary must also be rebuilt, as the Gators lost three starters (corners Lito Sheppard and Benny Alexander and strong safety Marquand Manuel) who combined to make 98 career starts.

The secondary of safeties Johnson and Gus Scott, as well as corners Robert Cromartie and Keiwan Ratliff have come together nicely during two-a-days, however.

While the defensive unit in 2001 was impressive, the 2002 group will hope to improve on forcing turnovers. After leading the nation in 2000 with 40 turnovers forced, the 2001 team had just 22 turnovers forced to rank tied for 54th in the nation.

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