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These imitations turned out to be real thing

WR Jabar Gaffney and QB Rex Grossman, former scout-teamers, succeed together.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- Every week, Rex Grossman and Jabar Gaffney would pretend to be someone else. And every week, they would learn a little more about each other.

About speed.

About timing.

About trust.

As redshirt freshmen on Florida's scout team last season, their job was to impersonate opponents. Little did they know they were rehearsing their futures.

Midway through this season, quarterback Grossman and receiver Gaffney are No. 10-ranked Florida's newest heroes, going in a matter of months from anonymous scout-team scrubs to Fun "n' Gun celebrities.

"Rex Grossman and Jabar Gaffney are a couple of freshmen who act like they can really play the game right now," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Those two have a little something special."

It's no coincidence.

Though Gaffney gained notoriety for his controversial touchdown catch from senior Jesse Palmer with 14 seconds left in a 27-23 victory at Tennessee, he did not break from UF's pack of receivers until the past two weeks -- with Grossman at quarterback. Grossman, looking to build confidence executing the Fun "n' Gun in place of Palmer, who was injured, naturally looked for a familiar target.

"We built our chemistry on the scout team," Gaffney said. "I learned how he throws the ball, and he learned my speed. He has a feeling for when I'm going to break and how fast I run each route. We figured all that out."

It shows.

In the past two games, the duo has connected 14 times for 241 yards and five touchdowns. Both made their first career starts in last week's 41-9 victory against LSU, in which Grossman threw three touchdown passes, all to Gaffney. Suddenly, everyone knows their names.

"I think they'll handle it well because they're pretty low-key guys," Spurrier said of their sudden star status. "But I don't want to praise those players too much until they do it week after week, year after year. When they finish up here at Florida, then we'll really talk about how great they were."

Talk has begun about how great they are.

Just before halftime against LSU, they seemed to read each other's mind on a broken-play touchdown. Grossman retrieved a shotgun snap over his head, spun and hit Gaffney crossing to the left side of the end zone. That's not where Gaffney was supposed to be, but sensing trouble, he ran to where he thought Grossman could see him. Spurrier called it an "all-time play in the Swamp."

After six games, Gaffney is close to becoming the most productive freshman receiver in UF history. His seven touchdown catches -- six from Grossman -- broke the record of five shared by Reidel Anthony (1994) and Jacquez Green (1995). With 33 catches for 497 yards, he needs three receptions to break Jack Jackson's freshman record of 35 in 1992.

"He's tough," Grossman said of Gaffney. "Last year he would go through the middle and not worry about a linebacker knocking his head off. He would catch the ball no matter what. He's just a natural receiver. We definitely formed a little connection there last year."

Grossman, who won the starting job from Palmer last week, is 45-of-70 for 706 yards, nine touchdowns and an interception. His efficiency rating of 188.58 is one point better than national leader Jonathan Beasley of Kansas State, but Grossman is five attempts shy of the NCAA-minimum 15 per game.

His passes are pin-point.

"He's a natural passer," Spurrier said. "You can teach them where to throw it and when to throw it, but some guys throw balls and hit guys on the dead run, and some throw them and they're a little behind or a little ahead all the time. It's what separates the really good quarterbacks from those who struggle a lot."

Grossman and Gaffney almost never met. Grossman, from Bloomington, Ind., had to jump start the recruiting process by introducing himself to Spurrier on an unannounced summer visit. Gaffney, the son of former UF and New York Jets receiver Derrick Gaffney, was among the last players offered a scholarship in the 1999 recruiting class.

Even six week ago, neither factored heavily in the Gators' preseason plans. At quarterback, Palmer and freshman Brock Berlin got all the attention. At receiver, Gaffney was struggling to regain the trust of coaches and teammates. He lost his scholarship in December after stealing cash and jewelry from the Gators locker room while it was being used for the high school state championships. He was charged with grand theft and signed an agreement in April against charges of petty theft.

"I've come back from a long way," Gaffney said. "And I've still got a long way to go."

Meanwhile, SEC programs have freshman scout-team players helping their defenses prepare for the Gators by imitating Grossman and Gaffney.

"In high school guys would do it, but I never thought somebody would be impersonating me in college," Gaffney said, smiling. "It feels good."

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