By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001
Call them the ties that bind. Or, in some cases, that didn't bind. Thousands of miles separate Huntington, W.Va. and Gainesville, but their paths have crossed like a maze the past few years, swapping coaches and players alike.
Marshall coach Bobby Pruett was the defensive coordinator at Florida from 1994 to 1996 before leaving to take over the Thundering Herd. Eric Kresser was a Florida backup quarterback from 1993 to 1995, who transferred to Marshall and went on to lead the Herd to a national championship.
Billy Donovan was basketball coach at Marshall before leaving in 1996 to take over the Florida program. Donovan's assistants, Anthony Grant, John Pelphrey and Donnie Jones also coached with him at Marshall.
NBA star Jason Williams was a student at Marshall when he transferred to Florida, following Donovan and his dream of playing college ball. And finally, current Florida basketball star Bret Nelson was all set to attend Marshall, until Donovan left, which meant -- you guessed it -- his path led to Gainesville and the Gators.
In case you missed some of that, here's the total: Former Florida coaches and players who became members of the Thundering Herd: 2. Former Marshall coaches and players who became Gators: 6.
"The whole team feels good. Marshall thinks they can come in here and beat us. We're going to show them what The Swamp is all about. They've been running their mouth a little bit. We've got a couple of things up on the board in the locker room that they've been saying. We're going to be ready for them." -- UF wide receiver Jabar Gaffney.
To stop the Thundering Herd from charging, Florida needs to keep quarterback Byron Leftwich in check. The junior from Washington, D.C., is coming off a season in which he led the MAC with 3,358 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Leftwich, 6 feet 6 and 240 pounds, threw for more than 300 yards four times last year. He threw just nine interceptions, none in his final 138 pass attempts.
The Herd returns five defensive starters, including Butkus Award candidate Max Yates, a linebacker who led the team with 115 tackles, and defensive end Ralph Street, who led the team in sacks for the second consecutive season eith eight.
Marshall's secondary could be tested if Rex Grossman is on the mark. The Herd led the MAC last season with 16 interceptions, but lost three of those players to graduation.
One of the major reasons Florida is a consensus No. 1 preseason pick is that it returns 18 starters.
Here's how their numbers add up: The Gators return 1,325 of 1,326 rushing yards and 3,367 of 3,698 receiving yards; there are 149 career starts on offense and 205 career starts on defense.
The surgery to repair his torn ACL and the grueling rehabilitation have been tough.
But the hardest part about preseason workouts for Dade City's Rob Roberts has been missing the sense of belonging that comes with practicing every day.
"Just not being able to be out there with my teammates has been the hardest part, definitely," said Roberts, who spent most of the preseason in a non-contact jersey as he continues to strengthen his left knee. "It's a privilege we all have to practice out here and to not be able to do it, it's tough. But I'm working as hard as I can to get back out there."
Roberts is a redshirt senior and the only experienced fullback on the squad. He tore his ACL in spring drills and underwent reconstructive surgery April 4.
A three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection, Roberts played in all 12 games last season.
Although coach Steve Spurrier said Ray Snell and Ran Carthon will play fullback Saturday, Roberts remains hopeful he might also play.
"I'm coming along," he said. "I've been working out with our strength coach, working on my running, working on my knee, working on some agility drills. I'm just trying to get back as soon as I can and be a part of this team." -- Compiled by Antonya English
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