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Young and skilled, can UF do it again?

The Gators restocked their football talent pool last year. How many big fish will join the fray?

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- A year ago, high school seniors with blue-chip credentials couldn't uncap their pens fast enough to sign with Florida. Word was, the Gators needed immediate help.

And they did.

But what now?

After winning the Southeastern Conference championship with a lineup dominated by underclassmen, how will Florida follow up its No. 1-rated recruiting class of 2000?

"In recruiting, you sell what you've got," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We tell a young man, 'We have good players here. Certainly, you've got confidence in your ability, and you want to play for an excellent team with a good supporting group around you.' "

Florida lost its final three games of the 1999 season to finish 9-4, matching its 1992 record for worst since Spurrier returned to coach his alma mater in 1990. A month later, 30 players, including five Parade All-Americans, signed with the Gators.

Several recruiting services rated Florida's class No. 1, including SuperPrep, Prep Football Report and the National Recruiting Advisor. It wouldn't seem fair to expect a repeat performance.

"I think we're going to have another excellent recruiting class," Spurrier said. "We're still waiting on about three or four guys, but it's going to be another good class."

Florida lost two of its last three games to rivals Florida State and Miami this time, but there is optimism in Gainesville because the players who contributed most to UF's first SEC title since 1996 were underclassmen. Fifty-six of 85 scholarship players (66 percent) were freshmen and sophomores.

The list of returning starters includes quarterback Rex Grossman, the first freshman to win SEC title game MVP honors; receivers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, the most productive pass-catching tandem in the nation; tailbacks Earnest Graham and Robert Gillespie; and three offensive linemen, led by second-team All-SEC tackle Mike Pearson.

And don't forget 2000 signees Brock Berlin, who will battle Grossman for the starting job during spring practice, and tailback Willie Green, who used a medical redshirt after having off-season knee surgery.

The defense, which forced a school-record 40 turnovers, returns nine starters. Cornerback Lito Sheppard and safety Todd Johnson, two of the league's biggest playmakers, were sophomores. And anyone hoping to be the next star defensive end will have to wait another season for Alex Brown to leave.

Not that UF doesn't have needs.

The departures of two juniors for the NFL Draft, tackle Kenyatta Walker and defensive tackle Gerard Warren, leave the Gators thin at both positions.

But members of the star-studded 2000 recruiting class are standing by, including defensive linemen Darrell Lee and Ian Scott, and offensive linemen Shannon Snell and Max Starks. All played sparingly, but showed tremendous potential.

UF's 2000 signing class will be a hard act to follow not only for its quality, but its quantity. The Gators signed 30 players to binding letters of intent last year, five more than the annual scholarship limit. By the start of fall practice, attrition and a couple of timely transfers made the numbers work.

Because UF's 2000 senior class was small, the Gators 18-20 scholarships available and likely will sign about 22 players.

"We may have to sort of get a couple guys to transfer who are not going to play," Spurrier said. "We did that with a couple guys last year, and it's to the benefit of the player. They sort of like the idea."

Recruiting information

ON THE INTERNET

BorderWars: www.borderwars.com

Bobby Burton: www.rivals100.com

Max Emfinger: www.maxemfinger.rivals.com

Bill Hodge: www.fansonly.com

Tom Lemming: www.espn.go.com/recruiting

PrepStar: www.prepstar.com

Allen Wallace: www.cnnsi.com/football/college/recruiting

Phone the Big Three

Florida: Gator Bait, (900) 860-4286

Florida St.: Osceola, (900) 860-4378

Miami: CaneSport, (900) 454-2263

Facts and terminology

SIGNING DAY: The first day athletes may sign binding national letters of intent. It is the first day of a signing period, which this year begins Wednesday for football. Coaches are not allowed to comment on recruits until recruits have signed.

ORAL COMMITMENT: A non-binding announcement by an athlete about what school he intends to sign with. Players may change their minds until they sign.

ALL-AMERICAN: A prospect named to a national all-star team by a publication (such as USA Today or Parade) or by a recruiting analyst.

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