[an error occurred while processing this directive]

UF receivers shine before their time

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


ATLANTA -- Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green were dynamic Florida receivers. Ike Hilliard was spectacular. All are getting rich in the NFL. Wideout excellence in Steve Spurrier's air-it-out coaching time has become Gators tradition.

But the Gainesville gang of now, Saturday night celebrants of the school's sixth Southeastern Conference championship in 10 seasons, are armed with a brace of high-speed catchers that could be ... well, at this infant stage, they are UF's best ever.

Jabar Gaffney ... Reche Caldwell.

Never in college football history has a freshman covered more yardage on pass receptions than the 1,184 of gifted Jacksonville native Gaffney. Together with Tampa sophomore Caldwell, a former Jefferson High quarterback, they gained more (1,944) than any wide receiver tandem in America this season.

Auburn had defensive designs aimed at harnessing Florida's big plays. Didn't work against Gaffney/Caldwell. Reche caught three passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Jabar embraced five for 84 and one score.

Careers only beginning.

This time, compared to October in the Swamp when Auburn was a 38-7 punching bag for the Gators, the Tigers put up a somewhat more spirited fight, most notably on the sledgehammer running/receiving of uncelebrated 250-pound fullback Heath Evans.

Not nearly enough.

It was a different place (Georgia Dome), for higher stakes (SEC championship), but same old Auburn walkover for the Gators, piggybacking on Gaffney-Caldwell explosiveness for a 28-6 knockout.

So, how wrong was Rex Grossman?

Seven weeks ago, the Florida quarterback said, after nailing Auburn for five touchdown passes, that he gets stiffer challenges from Gator scout teamers in practice.

Tigers heard it. They snarled.

Grossman's assessment was hot stuff on Auburn's bulletin board. Highlighted in yellow. Blown up. "How dare he?" the Tigers thought of Rex. Idea was to maximize War Eagle passions. It really worked, huh? In the Atlanta rematch, Grossman only passed for four touchdowns.

While repeating air annihilation of Auburn, the Gators also turned loose a killer groundhog. Earnest Graham scooted for 169 yards, most in an SEC Championship Game.

Florida had a big talent edge on Auburn, but there was a more fearsome element. Speed. Defensively, the Gators engulfed the Tigers with blurring feet. UF didn't do much blitzing. Didn't have to, with so much heat being applied by a quick front four.

Next stop, Sugar Bowl.

For the Gators, romping to this SEC trophy defines a season well worth cherishing. Conference championships are still heavy stuff. Florida standards have become so extreme, due in part to unsubsiding high-stakes competition with FSU, it becomes easy to dismiss any season of meager national-championship threat as less than delicious.

Breathe deeply, Gators. Inhale the glory of re-establishing yourselves as No. 1 in the country's toughest league. Florida's kids did indeed celebrate, doing a mass boogie at the 50-yard line following Domination Deux of Auburn. Florida fans joined the mood, chanting "SEC! SEC!" and then "It's great ... to be ... a Florida Gator."

They earned it. Even if Florida's record is only 10-2, damaged by a 30-7 clobbering by Florida State and a 47-35 shocker against Mississippi State. Spurrier's generation shows few deep tarnishes. Even if his Gators XI didn't quite make the ultimate BCS game.

In his 11 years, Spurrier is 112-24-1, including a saucy 81-12 in the cutthroat SEC. After their national championship joy in 1996, the year the Gators won a fourth consecutive SEC trophy, they had gone blank in accumulating silverware.

That dearth is over.

Florida is rich in youth. Seniors are rare. Most of Saturday's biggest producers were sophomores and freshmen. Grossman, Gaffney, Caldwell and several others, including defensive back/kick returner Lito "Backbreaker" Sheppard.

"We should be back here," Spurrier said, meaning SEC Championship Games of next season and beyond. "Doesn't mean we'll do it, but hard work and improvement can give us a wonderful chance."

Just maybe, there will be enough skill in the Gators of 2001 to challenge even Florida State, the Gators having the apparent stuff to be an even larger factor in next year's national race.

"Winning our conference championship," Spurrier said, "that's really all I want to talk about."

Saturday was worthy of many sweet, rewarding words. S.O.S. got carried off the field. Steve's smile seemed to reach from South Carolina to Louisiana.

Boss again of his league.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.