Heard the one about the Gator and the hog? For Channing Crowder‚Äôs teammates, stories about the sophomore linebacker‚Äôs piggyback-riding never get old. ‚ÄúYou should‚Äôve seen him jump on the back of this 200-pound hog last year,‚Äù says sophomore linebacker Earl Everett, one of several Florida players who‚Äôve joined Crowder on excursions to south Georgia, where a friend owns land. ‚ÄúHe grabs hold of the thing and just rides along, hollering and screaming.‚Äù Crowder says the hobby helps his game. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just like making a tackle,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve got to run ‚Äôem down and throw ‚Äôem down.‚Äù
There are worse ways for a Gators defender to pass the time than chasing slippery prey. In three of four regular-season defeats last year, the D lost leads in the final two minutes. Though a freshman, the 6'3", 245-pound Crowder was the most consistently strong performer. ‚ÄúLook at the Ole Miss game,‚Äù says defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, referring to a 20‚Äì17 loss that Crowder missed with torn knee cartilage. ‚ÄúPut Channing in there, and we win.‚Äù
Crowder‚Äôs aggressiveness isn‚Äôt always for the best. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery after fighting outside a Gainesville nightclub in April ‚Äô03 and was busted for disorderly conduct outside the same club this May. (Charges were pending at press time.) But coaches point to his work ethic in the classroom--he was a member of the National Honor Society at Atlanta‚Äôs North Springs High--and onfield. Strong remembers Crowder arriving on campus last year and promising that if he didn‚Äôt make 20 tackles a game, he‚Äôd ‚Äúcome close.‚Äù With projected starter Todd McCullough injured, Crowder got his chance, and though he didn‚Äôt get his 20 tackles, he did average 9.8 in nine starts. ‚ÄúSometimes in the film room we‚Äôd just watch Channing,‚Äù says sophomore defensive lineman Ray McDonald. ‚ÄúHe flies to every ball, puts his body on the line.‚Äù
The play of the young, athletic defense--including four new starters in the secondary--will be crucial if Florida is to improve on back-to-back 8‚Äì5 finishes. Strong has challenged Crowder to be a leader on the field. Crowder, of course, is game. ‚ÄúAnything that‚Äôll get us winning,‚Äù he says, ‚Äúsounds like fun to me.‚Äù --K.K.
2003 RECORD 8‚Äì5 (6‚Äì2, T1 in SEC East)
FINAL AP RANK 24
RETURNING STARTERS 8
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
QB Chris Leak (Soph.)
6‚Äì3 as starter, best among freshmen QBs
LB CHANNING CROWDER (SOPH.)
Missed two games, still had 106 tackles
RB CIATRICK FASON (JR.)
6.6-YARD AVERAGE ON 93 CAREER CARRIES
DT RAY MCDONALD (SOPH.)
54 tackles, four sacks as a freshman
C MIKE DEGORY (JR.)
Started all 26 games the past two seasons
Consecutive seasons in which Florida has won at least six SEC games; Alabama is second alltime with six, from 1961 through ‚Äô66.
Just as the deep passing game installed by new coordinator Larry Fedora will recall the Spurrier era, so will sophomore receiver Andre Caldwell, who has the blazing speed of his brother Reche, a former Gators wideout. With Kelvin Kight and Carlos Perez gone, Caldwell should emerge as a big-play threat.
Sept. 4 MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†11 EASTERN MICHIGAN
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†18 at Tennessee
Oct. 2 ARKANSAS
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†23 at Mississippi State
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†30 vs. Georgia*
Nov. 6 at Vanderbilt
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†13 SOUTH CAROLINA
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†20 at Florida State
Backs should get used to being pulled down by Crowder, who hit triple digits in tackles last year.