One day last spring Larry Smith, Florida's version of O. J. Simpson or Leroy Keyes, was having a bad time. The heat was enough to wither Spanish moss, and Smith's helmet was killing him—it felt six sizes too small. But none of this was as tough on Fullback Smith as the opposition he faced that day at Florida Field—a photographer shooting publicity pictures.
"C'mon Larry, now you gotta look mean. If you don't look mean the picture won't be any good at all. Now, Larry, c'mon and grimace; like this, grrrrrrrrhhhhh!"
So Smith, a very polite, bashful, reserved young man, clutched a football under one arm, bent over and tried to scowl for what seemed like the 100th time. Only he blushed—again—the ROTC guys watching from behind the fence in the end zone cracked up—again—and eventually the photographer settled for the only possible picture of Larry Smith, one of him grinning. Partly because of Smith and partly because of a beneficent schedule, everybody associated with the University of Florida's football team can be excused for grinning—or perhaps even smirking—for this could be the happiest year the Gators ever had. Florida is a much stronger team this season than last, when it won six of 10 games, and its schedule is considerably weaker, a combination of events that led SEC coaches in the spring to pick Florida as a co-favorite with Alabama for the conference title.
Though no coach would ever confess it, a schedule that can duck and dodge is at least as valuable as a halfback who can do the same. Following the opener with Air Force, Florida plays Florida State, Mississippi State, Tulane, North Carolina and Vanderbilt. If it can win its annual grudge match with Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida would almost certainly come into the Auburn game on November 2 unbeaten. After Auburn comes Georgia, then weak Kentucky and nonconference Miami. "It looks like all we have to do to win the SEC is beat Auburn and Georgia," says Coach Ray Graves. He is right, but he has to win those two with a team that is probably not the SEC's best, so it won't be all that breezy a season.
Silver-haired and heavy-set, Graves has an eight-year record of 55-27-2. He has had four bowl teams and six All-Americas, including the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, Steve Spurrier. But it is this year that he has his big chance.
The pivotal man for Graves is going to be grinning Larry Smith. He is big (6'4", 221) and fast (9.8 in the 100). In a year without O. J. Simpson and Leroy Keyes he would surely be the finest runner in the country. He would be the first ballcarrier picked in the pro draft, and he would sign for the most money of any pro draft choice. His talents are manifold, and he feasts on competition.
Called Stampede by his teammates, Smith has run for 1,683 yards and 16 touchdowns in two years. He broke open the 1967 Orange Bowl game against Georgia Tech with a 94-yard run. This fall, playing fullback (a better position from which to make All-America because Keyes and Simpson are playing halfback), he will carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game. In passing situations, however, he will be moved out to flanker. "He is our best player anywhere we put him," says Graves, "and he is awfully hard to bring down when he catches a pass in the open field."
Smith is a nationally known factor in Florida football, but he is hardly the sole reason for Gator optimism. There is the matter of quarterbacks. To listen to SEC coaches this year, a spiral is nature's most beautiful shape and the one least seen. Centers all over the conference are looking back between their legs and not finding anybody to hand the ball to. No quarterbacks. But Florida has one. No. Florida has two. When Jack Eckdahl, a good passer, broke his leg in the third game last year, Larry Rentz, a defensive halfback who is built like a soda straw (6'2" and 158), came over to offense and finished out the season. Rentz, a deft runner and good passer, did so well that he is the No. 1 quarterback this fall, with Eckdahl in reserve. "They are both talented boys," says Graves, ignoring the envy such remarks cause elsewhere.
Rentz should be better than last year, but Florida's full-throttle offensive style is going to be hurt by the loss of Richard Trapp at flanker, who will be replaced by junior Guy McTheny. The Gators will throw less and run more, the more being Smith, Smith, Smith and Smith.
Leading Smith's blocking will be a highly capable offensive line. Guard Guy Dennis, All-SEC for two years, and massive, 260-pound Jim (Punjab) Yarbrough at right end set the tone. An able receiver—and what a target to throw to—Yarbrough can block like a lineman on running plays. Two sophomores may also excel. One is Tackle Jim Kiley, who beat out a two-year regular for a starting position; the other is Ted Hager, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4, the fastest ever at Florida. He will play split end if he is not needed in the defensive backfield. Indeed, he may end up playing both positions.
The offense is good, but Graves is proudest of his defense. "I'll be very surprised if this isn't the strongest defensive team we've ever had," he says.
Middle Guard Bill Dorsey, one of the best at his position in the SEC, claims Florida's defensive linemen can outrun most of the backs, "and believe me those backs can run." Dorsey will be flanked by two stern linebackers, sophomore Mike Kelley and David Mann. The line, led by Tackle Jim Hadley, is sound, and Halfback Steve Tannen, who picked off four enemy passes last year, returns with Ted Hager. But all is not so safe at safety, where two former cornerbacks, Mark Ely and Skip Albury, are trying to learn the hazard of being the last line of defense. Their main hope may be that most of this year's SEC quarterbacks can't throw the ball that far.
Florida will measure this season by the outcome of four games—Florida State, Auburn, Georgia and Miami. These are always hard-fought blood-lettings decided by scant margins—and often in the final minutes. Last year Florida won but one of the four games and finished 6-4. This season the Gators should split the four games. If they win the right two, it will mean Florida's first SEC championship and big-grin time at Gainesville.