Gators see value of Tebow pocket change

An injury led the quarterback to run less, let passing plays develop.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2007

GAINESVILLE - Tim Tebow's shoulder injury four weeks ago was a severe blow to the Gators and their SEC championship hopes, but it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

The sophomore quarterback who had been seemingly unstoppable the first six games suffered a bruised right shoulder during an Oct. 20 win at Kentucky. It hampered his ability to run, a staple of his game, and left him vulnerable six sacks vs. Georgia.

But now 10 games into the season, Tebow is back with a vengeance. He is three rushing touchdowns shy of tying the NCAA record of 22 for a quarterback, and he is coming off a victory over South Carolina in which he set several school records.

And he is arguably a much more complete player than he was before the injury.

"It has made him a better quarterback," said senior receiver Andre Caldwell, who is nine catches shy of the all-time school receptions record. "It made him not tuck the ball as much (to run). It made him sit in the pocket and get the ball to his receivers. And he's improved on this throwing also.

"That makes him a double threat," Caldwell said. "He's willing to sit there and make the tight throws, yet everybody knows he'll run you over and get the extra yards also."

Don't confuse the facts. Tebow is still a running quarterback. Saturday against South Carolina, he rushed for 120 yards on 26 carries and had five rushing touchdowns. But he also completed 22 of 32 passes for 304 yards. It's the latter statistics that prove Caldwell's point. Production for the receivers has also improved.

"I think probably I have gotten more comfortable as a passer and it helps me stay in there longer," Tebow said. "Knowing that checking it down to one of the receivers or running backs will be just as big a play as if I kept it myself and run. I think I have become more patient with that and with taking what they give me. I think the last few weeks I have been a lot more accepting of that."

In the loss to Georgia, Tebow was ailing badly with the bruised right shoulder, not very mobile and struggling to pass. He was sacked six times, rushed 13 times for 15 yards and was 14-of-22 passing for 236 yards. The injury changed the way he normally would have played.

"There probably would have been a few plays where I would have tried to make a few more plays on my feet than I did," Tebow said. "There was probably one or two times where I thought about running but I stayed in there and found Percy (Harvin) or Bubba (Caldwell) and they made a play with it."

It's that concept - staying in the pocket a little longer, looking for his many big-play receivers - his coaches and teammates are excited about.

"He has learned to redirect protection a little better and be more cautious in the pocket," coach Urban Meyer said. "I thought he did a tremendous job hanging in there (against Vandy), zero sacks against the SEC's leading sack defense. ... He could be a tremendous pocket passer."

The Tebow that opponents are facing now is the one Meyer has wanted on the field all along. The guy who is just as likely to put up a 40-yard pass to Louis Murphy or Caldwell as he is to take off and gain 15 yards on a third and long. As his first season as a starter nears a close, Tebow is evolving into the player Meyer always envisioned he could become.

"We didn't want to be a 20-time a game quarterback run team," Meyer said. "We want him to be a threat.

"The biggest thing I see about our offense (right now) is when Percy Harvin is in that backfield it opens up the inside run, the outside run, the play action game because the threat is real. And also the threat is in Tebow running the ball. And that's exactly where we want to be - to have a legitimate threat in the backfield and also a quarterback and great passing game."

Antonya English can be reached at English@sptimes.com.