Not long after he was hired as running backs coach last winter, Stan Drayton peeked into a workout being run by the Gators' strength and conditioning staff on the practice field. Among the highly athletic players that populate Florida's roster year after year, one caught Drayton's eye. "It was DeShawn Wynn, doing a simple cone-dodging drill," says Drayton, who spent the 2004 season as a Mississippi State assistant. "For one thing, the kid had this big old gut that made him heavier than the other running backs. Yet every so often he would explode off a cone like no one I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe the potential."
Wynn's potential has been a topic of conversation among Florida coaches for several years. A Parade All-America tailback from Cincinnati's Reading High, Wynn showed promise as a redshirt freshman in 2003, when he rushed for 540 yards and seven touchdowns on 115 carries. But last season a visibly out-of-shape Wynn averaged only 3.7 yards on 58 attempts as a backup to Ciatrick Fason before suffering a season-ending groin injury in a loss to Georgia on Oct. 30. While Fason went on to rush for 1,267 yards en route to being selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round of the NFL draft, Wynn developed a reputation as an underachiever with a poor work ethic. As a result he entered spring practice having to compete for the starting job against junior Skyler Thornton, who had 63 career carries for 310 yards over two seasons, and Markus Manson, a top recruit from Alabama who redshirted last season.
For new coach Urban Meyer the uncertainty at tailback was an immediate concern. His spread-option offense, with which Utah went undefeated in 2004, requires the tailbacks to be receiving targets as well as rushing threats. For Gators junior quarterback Chris Leak to be as productive as Heisman finalist Alex Smith was for the Utes, who ran 62% of the time last year, a playmaking tailback is crucial. "There's a perception-versus-reality issue about our offense," Meyer said when spring practice got under way. "It starts with the run game and being physical. Right now we're in a bit of a panic situation. We have three scholarship tailbacks who haven't done a thing around here."
That was a wake-up call for Wynn, and since then he has been on a mission to change the perceptions about him. Told by Drayton that he had to lose his flab as a first step toward winning the starter's job, Wynn began by cutting out favorite foods like french fries. Combined with Meyer's up-tempo practices, the diet helped the 5'11" Wynn drop from 246 in early March to 224 by mid-April. "With each pound I felt quicker, more determined to prove everyone wrong," says Wynn.
"DeShawn's body change led to an attitude change," says senior center Mike Degory. "From the first spring practice he's done whatever he's wanted to on the field." Drayton noticed the change too; he commends Wynn for his increased toughness and improved receiving skills.
Wynn isn't the only player who has been inspired by the transition from former coach Ron Zook's traditional spread attack to Meyer's high-performance hybrid. In the spring game, during which the Gators put on an offensive spectacular for a crowd of 58,500, Leak showed a veteran's poise in connecting on 14 of 20 passes for four touchdowns. The receiver corps of senior Dallas Baker and juniors Chad Jackson and Andre Caldwell displayed the big-play ability that's been lacking since Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell (Andre's big brother) departed in 2001. And with Wynn held out of the game to give younger players more reps, Manson impressed coaches with 68 yards on 13 carries. (Thornton had one yard on three attempts.) This summer the three backs, whom Meyer expects to rotate liberally, worked together to improve their strength and conditioning.
For everyone on offense the biggest test early on will be to demonstrate a grasp of Meyer's system, which calls for constant adjustment at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive look. "We used to be able to tune out, let Chris call a play and make our reads as we're running," says Wynn, who spent part of the off-season studying Utah and Florida film on his own. "Now we have to be aware of every player on defense. It's a challenge I'm looking forward to."
Gators fans are looking forward to Sept. 3, when the spread option comes alive in the season opener, a home game against Meyer's former Mountain West rival Wyoming. With Louisiana Tech visiting the Swamp the following week, the Florida offense gets two chances to work out the kinks before the Gators begin the SEC campaign by hosting Tennessee. As long as the defense, led by second-team All-SEC linebacker Earl Everett, can build on the improved tackling and aggressiveness it showed this spring, Florida has the experience and--dare we say it?--the potential to erase the disappointment of Zook's three-year reign. --Kelley King
2004 RECORD 7--5 (4--4, T3 in SEC East)
FINAL AP RANK NR RETURNING STARTERS 14
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
WR Andre Caldwell (Jr.) Fifth in SEC with 57.4 receiving yards per game
QB Chris Leak (Jr.) Has thrown at least one TD pass in all 21 starts
C Mike Degory (Sr.) Three-time Rimington Award candidate
S Jarvis Herring (Sr.) Intercepted four passes, defended five more
Red-zone scoring percentage for Urban Meyer's offenses over the last four years (168 TDs, 29 FGs in 222 times inside the 20).
Based on what he did last year and his potential in the Gators' new high-powered offense, Chad Jackson figures to be the most dangerous member of Florida's receiving corps. The speedy 6'1", 204-pound junior caught 29 passes for 648 yards and six TDs in '04, setting a school mark for yards per catch, with 22.3 (third best in the nation). Five of his TDs came in the last seven games.
Sept. 3 WYOMING
10 LOUISIANA TECH
17 TENNESSEE 24 at Kentucky
Oct. 1 at Alabama
8 MISSISSIPPI STATE 15 at LSU 29 vs. Georgia*
Nov. 5 VANDERBILT
12 at South Carolina 26 FLORIDA STATE
* at Jacksonville
Wynn dropped more than 20 pounds this spring to pick up the quickness required of a spread-option back.
CHARLES W. LUZIER/REUTERS