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Rex gives QB-starved Gators life

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


Okay, call him T-Rex. That's T for touchdowns. Rex Grossman passed for five of them Saturday against Auburn.

A chunky, cerebral quarterback who grew up in a college town that has always been nuts for basketball, freshman T-Rex is the Swamp's hottest new football beast.

"We've come alive," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "Rex is a big part of that. He has a knack for locating the right receiver, getting passes off, doing the little things that are so important. Hard to remember when we last had a QB making so many good plays."

You know better, Steverino.

It was 1996, when brainy and brilliant Danny Wuerffel drove Florida to a national championship. Winning the Heisman Trophy, like his controversial coach did with the Gators in 1966.

Grossman has similar characteristics. A whopper of a high school career, but without a John Elway power passing arm or a towering, sculpted athletic body like Vinny Testaverde.

T-Rex ... a baby Danny?

Since the Gators (6-1) were humbled 47-35 two weeks ago at Mississippi State, there has been an obvious gear shift in Gainesville emotions. Spurrier realized he'd become too grumpy, too critical and too negative.

Amid the ashes of the Starkville embarrassment, Grossman came off the bench to earn a chance to become Steve's starting quarterback. So far, it's a magic T-Rex ride, especially with No. 8 throwing for scores on Florida's first five possessions against Auburn.

"We've loosened up," Spurrier said. "Everybody's having more fun. We're running all over the field making big plays." Grossman has been at the heart of the resurgence, triggering a 41-9 crushing of LSU and a 38-7 knockout of Auburn.

Remarkable, really, how Rex wound up with the Gators. He's from Indiana, just down the Bloomington street from where Bob Knight used to make basketball interesting. Grossman's game was football but he wanted no part of playing for the Hoosiers, who regularly stink up the Big Ten.

"A lot of big-time football colleges were interested," he said after Saturday's smoking of the Tigers, "but I had often watched Florida and Florida State on TV, playing championship football and throwing a lot of passes. I knew that's what I had to shoot for."

At the end of February 1998, seven months before Rex's senior season began at Bloomington South, Grossman and parents Daniel and Maureen used spring break to go on a sunshine shopping trip. His dad is an eye surgeon.

Loaded with resume and videotape, they came to Gainesville and, after visiting with Spurrier, dropped by FSU's campus in Tallahassee. Bobby Bowden wasn't around. Rex applied for quarterback work. Spurrier had never heard of him.

"It's amazing luck that I happened to be in my office that off-season day," said the Florida coach, who more predictably would've been on a golf course. "We liked each other, me and the Grossmans. After they left, I checked out Rex's videos and saw that this kid really could play."

Predictably, now, Rex says the Gators "were always my first choice and Florida State second. I immediately fell in love with Gainesville. It was good when I learned before my senior season in high school that I was going to play for the Gators, in a great football program, with great weather, and a great coach."

Rex, with maybe 50 percent of this season's work among UF quarterbacks, has thrown 14 touchdown passes with just one interception. Chances are, when NCAA statistics are refreshed, he will rank No. 1 nationally in QB efficiency.

"Frankly, it wasn't all that hard for me," Grossman said of his blistering first half against an Auburn team that came to the Swamp with a 5-1 record and No. 19 ranking. "Our receivers are just better than the defensive backs they were going against.

"It's never been that easy in practice. Even our scout team would stop us one time in five drives. Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell kept getting open." Gaffney caught three touchdown passes; Caldwell got two.

Quarterback can be a funny business with the Gators. Spurrier's hot-and-cold history with his pitching staff is well-documented. Now that Grossman is blossoming, will Swamp eyes ever again see senior Jesse Palmer in a meaningful role?

What about Brock Berlin, the most celebrated high school recruit in America last year, who came from Louisiana to be Spurrier's man. Berlin now stands on the UF sideline, watching Rex excel. They are eligibility parallels. Surely, in the 19-year-old Berlin's mind, the wheels are turning.

"We just feel fortunate that Rex built such a strong opinion of Florida Gators football," Spurrier said. "Lucky, too, that I dropped by the office that day and got ahold of his videotape. Funny how things can happen."

Funny, yeah.

It has Steve smiling.

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