Larry Fedora's aggressive play-calling has led to big plays and Florida's biggest numbers since coach Ron Zook arrived.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 9, 2004
GAINESVILLE - When Florida coach Ron Zook decided to change offensive coordinators last spring, Larry Fedora was an easy choice.
"Larry's personality is very, very similar to mine," Zook said.
Excitable, fiery, aggressive, an all-out competitor.
Exactly what the Florida offense hadn't been.
Four games into the season, Fedora is producing. So, too, is the Gators offense.
Florida leads the SEC and is 14th nationally in passing (279.8 yards per game) and is second in the league in scoring (35.5) and and third total offense (448.2).
Last season, fans complained incessantly about the screen passes that produced short yardage, if any. Now, all the talk is about the long passes downfield and aggressive play-calling.
"I think this offense reflects his personality," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "He likes to go and attack."
Never was that more evident than last week against Arkansas. Florida scored 28 points in the second quarter, the most in Zook's two-plus seasons. Big plays were a huge factor. Sophomore receiver Andre Caldwell scored on a 61-yard run, and Dallas Baker and Cornelius scored on receptions of 34 and 48 yards, respectively. Florida started all four drives with a pass and scored touchdowns on each.
The Gators have completed six passes for 35 yards or more this season, 12 for 20 or more. "About eight (big plays) a game is what we're shooting for," Fedora said. "That's run and pass. We've got guys that can (make them). That's the good thing. We've got more guys that can make big plays, so when you get the ball in their hands . . ."
That's the strategy now. But four games into last season, the Gators had just three passes longer than 35 yards. Florida opened with San Jose State, Miami and Florida A&M.
So why the struggles last season? "There were a lot of different factors," said Fedora, who was the receivers coach then. "Somebody made a mistake. Somebody wasn't clicking on our offense. You've got to have all 11 guys on the same page at the same time. It would be like if you asked 11 different secretaries to all type the same letter at the same time. It's tough for them to do."
Before coming to Florida, Fedora was the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee. There, his offenses averaged 424 yards a game over three seasons. Fedora replaced Ed Zaunbrecher, who was shifted to quarterbacks coach.
Yet the players and coaches insist the 2004 version of the offense isn't much different than last season's. Or the season before for that matter.
The difference, they say, is time and experience. Sophomore quarterback Chris Leak has 13 starts, and his offensive line, receivers and running backs are older and more experienced.
"This is the third year into the system," center Mike Degory said. "It's still the same terminology. Besides a few wrinkles, it's about the same. I guess having No. 12 (Leak) back there is a definite big help, too. As an offensive line, we've got eight to nine guys rotating to keep us all fresh.
"The receivers out there are a bunch of young guys who all want to make a name for themselves. I'm not saying they're selfish, but they all want to go out there and make big plays and be the highlight. That breeds competition."
Very healthy competition as eight receivers have caught passes.
"That's an advantage we have with all the receivers we have," Leak said. "Everybody can make a play. You can't really key on one guy. We just have to take advantage of that and make sure we're distributing the ball the way we've been doing."
"Distributing the ball to the receivers shows you the maturity Chris has got," Zook said. "The coaches are doing a great job getting the players into position, and Chris is finding the right guy."
Leak, who leads the SEC in passing yards per game, and the receivers spent countless hours during the summer working together on their own and during voluntary workouts.
"That helped a lot," Leak said. "It helped our confidence in each other. Just knowing where we were going to be on the field and just having that feeling that we know they're going to get a ball at a certain time and a certain place."
After averaging 391 yards last season, its fewest since 1992, Florida is averaging 448 yards and has more than 400 in all four games. The strategy has been centered around balance. The Gators have run the ball 146 times this season and attempted 140 passes. Florida is seventh in the nation in rushing offense (168.5), and junior Ciatrick Fason leads the SEC at 114.5 yards per game, including a career-high 210 against Kentucky on Sept. 25. Time and experience, Fedora insists.
"They're just playing now. They're being themselves," he said of the offense. "They're not uptight. They've got confidence. They feel good about what's being done and what they're doing. Any time you start making plays, your confidence swells and you start making more and more. You just expect it of yourself."