No coach is better at leaving a disappointing season behind than
Steve Spurrier. The man knows how to get away, usually on fine
golf courses. His talented, experienced Gators went 10-2 in '98
but lost the only two games that mattered, to Tennessee and
Florida State; missed the Southeastern Conference championship
game for the second straight year after five appearances in a
row; and after September were never a factor in the national
At a July celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Spurrier ran
into Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and talked about the
two-time Super Bowl champions. "I told Mike, 'You guys play like
the Gators used to--throw it around early and score a bunch of
points, run it down their throats in the second half,'" says
Spurrier. "Of course, we didn't play like that last year."
Florida scored 349 points last season, but that was its lowest
total since 1992. A defense that included five players taken in
the first three rounds of the NFL draft failed to dominate. "We
had a whole bunch of superstars, and we still didn't play like
we have in the past," says Spurrier. As a result Spurrier has
decided to recast the third-winningest college football program
of the '90s (behind Florida State and Nebraska) as underdogs.
His players are listening. "This year we're out to prove
everybody wrong who thinks the Gators are dead," says junior
wideout Travis Taylor.
There's no better place to begin a reclamation project--even a
manufactured one--than at quarterback, where senior Doug Johnson
has been named the starter. Two years ago Johnson had the world
at his feet. Not only was he the heir to Heisman Trophy winner
Danny Wuerffel, but he also had a $400,000 bonus from the Tampa
Bay Devil Rays. He was rich and cocky, and he and his family
talked openly of pitting baseball against the NFL in a bidding
war. Since then Johnson has endured major injuries to his
throwing shoulder and left leg, been suspended for breaking
curfew, alternated snaps with two teammates and tasted heavy
criticism for everything from not being Wuerffel to playing two
sports. He has started only 12 games.
Johnson missed the beginning of last season rehabbing from
shoulder surgery and didn't start until the seventh game,
against Auburn, after Jesse Palmer broke his right collarbone.
Johnson went 4-1 as a starter, the only loss coming against
Florida State in the season finale, but he was knocked out of
the Orange Bowl with a broken left leg that required surgery and
left six screws and a metal plate in the leg. With just one year
of eligibility remaining, he told the Devil Rays he was not
going to play baseball in '99 and instead has stayed in
Gainesville through the spring and summer. "I haven't picked up
a bat in a year and a half," he says. "Football is my priority.
I've learned that bummin' on a bus through the minor leagues
can't compare to playing for Florida in front of 90,000 people."
Johnson had near perfect attendance in off-season conditioning
drills and for the first time in his career is living with a
teammate, center Zac Zedalis. "I'm going to put it together this
season," says Johnson. "I'm taking everything good and bad that
I've been through here and applying it to my last season."
Johnson could use a running game, which was all but nonexistent
a year ago. Florida averaged only 115.8 yards a game and gained
just four yards combined on the ground against Tennessee and
Florida State. The leading candidate to rescue the rushing
attack is 5'9", 218-pound redshirt freshman Earnest Graham, a
punishing north-south runner. "He keeps the pile moving," says
Taylor. Graham will run behind an offensive line that lost just
one starter, which can be interpreted as good news or bad, given
its performance of a year ago.
Taylor and Darrell Jackson are the only returning receivers who
had more than 17 catches in '98. Spurrier will try to find a way
to use sophomore John Capel, one of the fastest sprinters in the
The Gators' defense will have a new look. New coordinator Jon
Hoke, formerly Missouri's defensive backs coach, replaces Bob
Stoops, who became head coach at Oklahoma. In addition, nine
starters from '98 are gone, including the entire front seven.
Seven members of that '98 defense were subsequently implicated
in a scandal involving improper dealings with an agent, lending
credence to teammates' conjectures that some of the Gators had
their minds elsewhere last year. "It seemed like certain guys
weren't playing every down," says junior defensive end Derrick
Chambers. "With what's happened since, with the agents, there's
In Hoke's blitz-oriented system, Chambers could become a star.
So could 6'3", 253-pound rush end Alex Brown, who wears the
unusual number 13 in memory of McArthur Zanders Jr., a cousin
and tobacco-picking partner, who was killed in a 1994 car
accident. Of course, the star system failed the Gators a year
ago. "I think this season the emphasis will be on team first,"
says Palmer. That's a philosophy even a front-running coach can
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Eye on the prize Taylor (left) and Co. are focused on returning to the SEC title game after a two-year absence.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES One game at a time Johnson, a career 55% passer and .215 minor league hitter, focused solely on football this summer.
1998 record: 10-2 (7-1, 2nd in SEC East)
Final ranking: No. 5 AP, No. 6 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 31.7 115.8 346.1 461.9
DEFENSE 14.1 90.7 195.9 286.6
Coach: Steve Spurrier
10th year at Florida (93-18-1); Career Division I-A record:
WR Travis Taylor[*] Jr. 37 receptions, 676 yards
LT Cooper Carlisle[*] Sr. 3-time SEC Academic Honor Roll
LG Ryan Kalich Sr. 31 starts since redshirting in '95
C Zac Zedalis Jr. 10 career starts at center
RG Cheston Blackshear Sr. Up 23 pounds, to 289, since '97
RT Kenyatta Walker So. Regained job he lost at end of '98
TE Erron Kinney Sr. Likes to collect toy fire engines
WR Darrell Jackson[*] Jr. 292 receiving yds., 11.2 avg., 4 TDs
QB Doug Johnson Sr. Had touchdown rec. vs. Georgia
RB Earnest Graham[*] Fr. Redshirted with a fractured foot
FB Rod Frazier Jr. 2 carries, 6 yards in '98
K Jeff Chandler Jr. Spirited: 3 special teams tackles
LE Derrick Chambers[*] Jr. Big playmaker had 28 tackles
LT Gerard Warren[*] So. Suspended for first 2 games of '99
RT Chris Reynolds[*] Fr. 6'1", 262; plays viola
RE Alex Brown[*] So. Will also play strongside LB
OLB Eugene McCaslin[*] Sr. Converted from RB last spring
MLB Andra Davis[*] So. Youth director at his church school
OLB Keith Kelsey[*] Sr. 34 tackles in 9 games off bench
CB Marquis Westbrook[*]Fr. Battling So. Robert Cromartie
SS Rod Graddy Jr. Suspended for first 2 games of '99
FS Lester Norwood[*] So. No pass breakups, interceptions
CB Bennie Alexander So. Only returning CB with a '98 int.
P David Wasielewski So. Avg. 40.4 yds. as true freshman
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Schedule strength: 19th of 114
Sept. 18 vs. Tennessee
The annual early-season SEC holy war. The Gators want to return
to the form that won them five straight against the Volunteers
until last year.
Nov. 20 vs. Florida State
The annual late-season in-state holy war. The Gators think they
let one get away in '98 against a team without its starting
The Bottom Line
For the first time in his tenure with the Gators, Spurrier has a
club that is mildly suspect and inexperienced. And he's loving
it. This could be the surprise team of the year.