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Unintended controversy

Redshirt freshman QB Rex Grossman is just doing what he does best, exceling on the field. And now he's challenging to be the Gators' starter.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000


photo
[AP photo]
Rex Grossman could play a major role in the Gators' trip to Knoxville.
GAINESVILLE -- Freshman quarterback Rex Grossman merely intended to express support for a fallen idol. He had no idea how much he was saying about himself.

"By the way," Grossman said, "I'm a Coach Knight fan."

The annual showdown between No. 6 Florida and No. 11 Tennessee isn't exactly grabbing headlines this week in Grossman's hometown of Bloomington, Ind., where legendary Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight was fired Sunday after 29 seasons.

But by this Sunday, Grossman hopes to have stolen the spotlight -- and the Gators quarterback job -- if only he can manage to please a certain other demanding college coach, Steve Spurrier.

"I think he feels that if the quarterback plays perfectly, we have a real good chance this year, and that's probably the way it should be," Grossman said. "I expect to play as close to perfect as I can. That's my goal. If I get the opportunity to play, hopefully I will please him with my performance."

Senior Jesse Palmer will start for the Gators on Saturday, his veteran status and big-game experience weighing heavily in his favor. But if Palmer falters, Grossman will get his chance.

"Rex is here, and he's a pretty good dadgum quarterback," Spurrier said. "He's got the quickest release of any quarterback I've ever coached. He's a very competitive kid; he can move around some. He just needs to learn where everybody is and make decisions, because he's a good passer."

Grossman, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt freshman, showed just how good when he threaded the ball between two defenders for his first career touchdown pass, a 16-yard streak route to Alex Willis in the second quarter of UF's 55-0 rout of Middle Tennessee State on Saturday.

Two plays earlier, Palmer had failed to see Willis break open on the same call, prompting Spurrier to replace him with Grossman in the middle of a drive.

"He asked me if I saw Alex was open and I answered as if he was just talking to me," Grossman said. "I said, "Yes,' and he kind of pushed me into the game."

And into controversy.

Grossman, 20, was the least talked-about of Florida's three quarterbacks entering fall practice. Palmer was atop the depth chart and freshman Brock Berlin, the USA Today's national offensive player of the year from Shreveport, La., was the challenger.

"Brock was the No. 1 player coming out of high school last year, so he's definitely going to be known," senior tailback Bo Carroll said. "That's what happens sometimes, people get lost in the shuffle. But Rex is definitely a good quarterback. He's doing a great job."

Grossman was a Parade All-American at Bloomington South High, where he threw for 7,399 yards and 87 touchdowns in his career, losing in the Class 5A title game as a junior and winning it as a senior. He never had been an underdog until he got to UF, but he didn't mind.

"A lot of attention isn't exactly healthy," he said. "I knew I'd get my shot and, hopefully, I'll make the best of it. Every quarterback here will get the chance to prove what he can do."

After receiving a few "manufactured letters" from Florida as a high school junior, Grossman decided to recruit the Gators. He mailed a highlight tape to Spurrier and followed up with an unofficial visit to Gainesville. That's when Spurrier introduced Grossman to the standards of playing quarterback at UF.

"We watched the 1996 highlight tape," Grossman said, referring to the Gators' national championship season in which senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy and set an NCAA record for passing efficiency. "It was actually the 1996 touchdown pass highlight film. It was impressive."

Grossman's quick release, Spurrier said, is reminiscent of Wuerffel's. So is his tendency to make observers scratch their heads in practice. Wuerffel never was the most impressive thrower in warmups, and Grossman has difficulty finding inspiration in a low-stakes setting.

"I'm actually more nervous in practice than I am when I'm out there in a game," Grossman said. "In the game everything comes naturally, you don't have to think about it too long. You just kind of play."

Against Middle Tennessee State, Grossman played nearly two quarters with UF's first team, completing 9 of 14 for 95 yards, three touchdowns and one INT.

"He played so-so," Spurrier said.

Grossman's first two touchdown passes came after receiving specific instructions from Spurrier, when he replaced Palmer coming out of a timeout. Coaching a quarterback before every play, Spurrier said, is the biggest advantage to playing more than one.

The quarterbacks had to come up with answers Tuesday at the Gators' weekly news conference. Aware of a brewing controversy, Spurrier directed Palmer and Grossman to answer questions from a podium, bright lights shining in their eyes, for seven minutes each.

Palmer seemed jittery, grabbing the sides of the lectern and invoking the phrase, "Coach's decision," six times. Grossman seemed completely at ease, talking patiently and eliciting laughter with his well-timed responses, not to mention the unsolicited endorsement of Knight. Every indication was that he could handle pressure.

"I've played in some big games before," Grossman said. "I know it's not nationally as big, but in high school a state championship game, at that moment, seems just as big."

He'd like another chance Saturday.

"I really wasn't expecting to start," he said. "Hopefully, I will play, but we're going to do whatever's best for the team. I'm going to prepare like I will be playing."

UF AT TENNESSEE: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 10. Meet Rex Grossman

POSITION: Quarterback.

CLASS: Redshirt freshman.

HT./WT.: 6-1; 215.

HOMETOWN: Bloomington, Ind. (Bloomington South High).

NOTES: He saw action on 21 plays in UF's first two games, completing 11 of 18 for 127 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also has 10 rushing yards on three attempts. . . . Enrolled at UF for the spring term of 1999, a semester early, to participate in spring drills. . . . Co-recipient with freshman Brock Berlin of UF's Most Improved Quarterback in spring of 2000. . . . Threw for 3,085 yards and 44 touchdowns in leading Bloomington South to the Class 5A title as a senior. . . . A business administration major.

-- Compiled by Joanne Korth.

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