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Gators looking for new identity

Offensive line, kicking game, linebackers will be first to undergo changes.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 9, 2002
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GAINESVILLE -- Having failed miserably in its first big test of the season, the Florida football team may undergo several changes this week to correct its problems before facing another Top 5 opponent.

The Gators (1-1) will play host to unranked Ohio on Saturday then travel to Knoxville on Sept. 21, where they will open the Southeastern Conference season against No. 4 Tennessee.

But first, they must regroup from Saturday's 41-16 loss to No. 1 Miami -- the Gators' worst loss since 1979.

"I think we were beat by a very, very good football team," coach Ron Zook said. "I think you're going to find out that team is maybe better than it was last year, if that's possible."

The bigger question is what will the Gators find out about themselves? With the loss, Florida fell to No. 12, its first time out of the Top 10 during the regular season since 2000.

There was a sense of disappointment, regret and a little optimism among the Gators.

Disappointment in the way Florida was manhandled, at home and in front of a national television audience, gaining 354 yards but giving up 508. And regrets over missed opportunities in the game: Miami was penalized 14 times for 134, the Gators missed a field goal and an extra point, and Florida did not pick up any positive yards after blocking a punt on Miami's 9-yard line.

"The mood (in the locker room) was just like you'd expect -- embarrassed," Zook said.

"When you get your tail kicked like that, you don't feel good. But I don't want them to feel good. We're going to go back to work this week and we're going to make improvements."

They will begin with the kicking game, which has struggled in the first two games. Matt Leach has missed two field goals and two extra points, and the punting has been inconsistent.

Zook will reopen the punting and kicking competition in practice this week. Among those vying for the jobs will be Jeff Whittaker and Brendt Talcott, the backup kicker last season, and backup punter Sean Morton. Talcott played in four games last season and is 11 of 11 on PATs and 1 of 2 in field goals for his career.

Florida's offensive line and linebacker positions also might change. Freshman offensive lineman Randy Hand and middle linebacker Travis Harris, who played sparingly Saturday, are expected to get more playing time. "It (linebacker) is a position where we've got to get more productivity because they were on the field more than they were last week," Zook said.

The Hurricanes' secondary rendered Florida's receivers helpless, even when the protection for quarterback Rex Grossman didn't break down. With Taylor Jacobs double-covered and unable to break free most of the game, the other receivers didn't step up.

"They call them (Miami's secondary) their weakness because they are young, but it was a tough game," receiver Carlos Perez said. "The rest of us had a chance to step up and do something and we couldn't."

Zook said freshman Reggie Lewis will be among those who'll be evaluated at receiver.

"I don't think there's any question in my mind that we're not where we need to be, but I really believe we're a better football team than what the score indicated there," Zook said.

* * *

GROSSMAN'S DECLINE: Grossman led the nation in passing efficiency last season but is currently ranked No. 8 in the SEC after two games (112.61) and 62nd nationally. He came into the season with a 167.63 career efficiency rating -- No. 1 among quarterbacks in Division I-A history with at least 325 career passes.

A NICE RETURN: Zook complimented Clearwater linebacker Clint Mitchell who returned after missing 10 of 12 games last season because of various suspensions.

"He played hard and aggressive and got after it," Zook said. "Once again, here's a guy, he's been out of the game for a while, hasn't played for a while, so every time he steps on that field, every game he gets in, he's going to get better and better. But he played wide open. He made a few mistakes but the one thing, we can get him corrected."

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