ON A RECENTThursday afternoon at Florida's Griffin Hill Stadium, the Pouncey twins kickedback in the offensive linemen's meeting room, whose walls are adorned withmotivational catchphrases (FOUR TO SIX SECONDS OF RELENTLESS EFFORT! reads one)and glossy photos of past greats who manned the Gators' O-line (Lomas Brown andKenyatta Walker among them). When they aren't in uniform—Maurkice, the startingcenter, is number 56; Mike, the right guard, is number 55—the Pounceys arealmost impossible to tell apart. They're the same height (6'5") and weight(312 pounds); their hair is the same length; their voices, low and easy, areindistinguishable; and they frequently wear matching outfits (on this occasion,oversized black T-shirts and knee-length basketball shorts). The identicalsophomores also tend to finish each other's sentences, making things even moreconfusing. Consider this recollection of their first game as freshmen, whichMaurkice started and Mike watched from the sideline.
Maurkice: "Itdidn't feel right, not having my bro beside me...."
Mike: "But Iwas his biggest fan. And when spring came around, he was the one who got in myface every day in practice."
Maurkice:"I'm going to criticize him more than anybody because...."
Mike: "Hewants me to be the best, and I want him to be the best...."
Maurkice:"And everyone knew we should be on the line together."
This fall thePounceys have been side by side all season, pillars of an offensive line that'sone of the biggest reasons why Florida, six weeks after its shocking 31--30home loss to Mississippi, has resurfaced as a national championship contenderafter sinking to No. 12 in the AP Top 25. Since that setback the Gators (8--1)have steamrollered SEC rivals Arkansas, LSU, Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt—a42--14 victim last Saturday night in Nashville—while averaging 48.6 points agame. After the win over Kentucky, Mike told his mom to book hotel rooms inAtlanta for friends and family on Dec. 6, the date of the SEC championshipgame. "We'll be there," he vowed.
Indeed, with itswin over Vandy, Florida clinched the SEC East and a conference-title-gameshowdown against No. 1 Alabama, the West division winner (box, page 44). Andwith Iowa's upset of No. 3 Penn State on Saturday, the Gators moved up a notchfrom No. 4. If Florida and Alabama win the rest of their regular-seasongames—the Gators face South Carolina and The Citadel at home before the finaleat Florida State, and the Crimson Tide (10--0) has Mississippi State and Auburnat home—the winner is virtually assured a spot in the BCS title game.
"Everythingstarts with our offensive line," says coach Urban Meyer. "[The linemen]set the tone with their intensity and with their passion." Few Gators canmatch the intensity and the passion of the Pouncey twins, who are the youngeststarters on the line but, as 2007 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Tim Tebowputs it, "play with a love for the game that rubs off on everyone. Off thefield they're jokesters who light up every room. They're such dominantpersonalities because everything is times two. And they're alwaystogether."
When Maurkicetook a weeklong trip to Houston this summer with his girlfriend, it was thelongest the Pounceys had been apart. Says running back Chris Rainey, "I waswith Mike when Maurkice was gone, and they were texting each other all day.'What you doing, bro? Why haven't you hit me up [with a text], bro?' They justcan't be without each other."
The twins, whosefriends and teammates tell them apart by the faint scars on Mike's right cheekand the different tattoos on their forearms, live together in an off-campusapartment and eat nearly every meal together. (Mike has a nine-month-olddaughter, Janiyah, who lives with her mother, a former girlfriend, in hishometown of Lakeland, Fla.) The twins even get around on similar Vento motorscooters, though they had to make do with one for a time last year after Raineyborrowed Maurkice's scooter and crashed into a utility pole. Rainey wasn'tinjured, but the scooter was totaled. So for the three months before Maurkicegot a replacement, the twins tooled around campus on the same scooter. "Itwas like a circus act," says senior right tackle Jason Watkins.
THE POUNCEYS aremuch more than an entertaining sideshow: With the exception of Tebow, no otherGators may be more valuable than the twins. "They're emerging as big teamleaders, and not just for what they bring to the field," says offensiveline coach Steve Addazio. "They're fun-loving. They make everyone smile,but make no mistake: If you line up against them on the football field, theywant to maul you."
Since 1990, whenSteve Spurrier took over the program, Florida has been known for its stars atthe high-profile positions. On the surface these Gators are no different.Freakishly athletic, they have Tebow, the first sophomore to win the Heisman,leading the offense, and 12 players who have run the 40 in 4.4 or under. Thatincludes a freshman tailback, Jeffery Demps, whom many regard as the swiftestrunning back—college or pro—in the nation, and a wideout-tailback, PercyHarvin, who might be the second-fastest football player around.
But as Meyersays, "Anyone who really knows this team knows that what we're doing hereisn't fast-break basketball on grass." The emergence of the Pounceys andthe jelling of the line allow the offense to play a smashmouth game; thelinemates relish the trench wars in the SEC. "This team wants to bephysical," says Meyer, who left Utah for Florida in December 2004. "Wetake great pride in running the football. We take great pride in protecting thequarterback. The key is to get the Harvins and the Dempses into the secondlevel where they can make guys miss."
Injuries andinconsistent play plagued the line early in the season, when Florida rushed foronly 89 yards against Miami and 124 against Mississippi. Since the loss to OleMiss, the Gators have had games in which they piled up 278, 265, 214 and 231rushing yards—four of Florida's six highest totals in conference play duringthe Meyer era. Tebow has been sacked 1.22 times per game and only once in hislast three outings. "Every week they've gotten better as a unit," saysAddazio, a Gators assistant since 2005. "It's as talented a group as we'vehad here—each guy has his own strength."
Watkins(6'6", 310) manhandles defenders with his long reach. Left guard CarlJohnson (6'6", 330) overwhelms opponents with his sheer size. Left tacklePhil Trautwein (6'6", 310) has tremendous acceleration off the ball. Andthe Pouncey twins? Says Addazio, "They have the same strengths: all-aroundpower with great, furious explosion off the snap."
Asked to citedifferences between the two, Addazio pauses before saying, "There are none.They're the same person. Sometimes it gets to the point of being ridiculous.Invariably, when one gets hurt in practice, the other gets hurt in practice.One guy dings his butt, and the other one all of a sudden hurts his back. I'mlike, Are you kidding me? You can't be without your brother?"
THE TWINS havealways been inseparable, even when they entered a Head Start program asthree-year-olds in Lakeland. "The first day they were put in differentclasses, and it was the first time they'd ever been apart," recalls theirmother, Lisa Webster, whose husband, Rob, has helped raise the boys since theywere a year old. "On the drive back I heard one of them ask the other, 'Didyou miss me?' The other went, 'Yeah.' Then the other said, 'Well, I missed youtoo.'" She adds that even when the twins would occasionally fight,"they'd wind up rolling around on the floor and giggling."
Maurkice and Mikehad perfect attendance until the 11th grade, and both wasted no timedistinguishing themselves once they started playing for Lakeland High, the USATODAY national champion in 2005 and '06 that has produced six pro footballplayers. "Right away you saw their passion for the game and their workethic," says Dane Mooney, the former offensive line coach at Lakeland."Every morning before 7 o'clock they'd both be standing outside the weightroom waiting for the head coach to open the doors."
As juniors theywere all-state, Maurkice at left guard and Mike at left tackle. Don't botherasking anyone who was the better player of the two. "I'd say Maurkice wasmaybe always a little ahead of Mike, but ask someone else and you'd get adifferent answer," says Mooney. It was Maurkice, however, who made alasting mark at Lakeland High. After a big win over rival Lake Gibson, Maurkicetold Mooney that he had just broken the school record for most pancake blocksin a game. Mooney, knowing the mark was nine and set sometime in the mid-1980s,replied, "You're crazy." But when he watched video of the game later,Mooney counted 11 pancakes. "He was an animal that night," the coachsays.
There was neverany question that the twins would attend the same college. During their junioryear Maurkice received a letter addressed only to him from USC; he promptlytossed it in the trash. "I don't want to go there if they don't want bothof us," he told his mother. Impressed by the personal attention the Floridacoaching staff had given them during a visit, the twins shocked their friendsand family by choosing the Gators over Florida State, the school the Pounceysand their mom had rooted for while the twins were growing up.
Last yearMaurkice—who played in all 13 games, starting 11 at right guard—became only theeighth true freshman to start at Florida in a season opener. But what Mike didfor the Gators in the last five games was just as impressive. Having been usedon defense in goal-line situations in high school, he played tackle for theinjury-plagued Gators defense, and his interception in the Capital One Bowlagainst Michigan led to a touchdown. "They both exceeded ourexpectations," says Meyer. "You're not supposed to do what they did asfreshmen at a school like Florida."
Maurkice wasnamed first-team freshman All-America, and this year Mike has graded out thehighest every week in Addazio's postgame evaluations. "Mike had a greatspring," says Addazio, "and I think you can give some credit toMaurkice. The two KEEP GETTING BETTER because they won't let each other slackoff."
While thePounceys are looking to bring another national championship to Gainesville,they're not ready to consider life after Florida—when they'll most likely beplaying for different NFL teams. (Maurkice and Mike would be the 12th set oftwins to play in the league.) "Maybe they'll have a house somewhere betweenthe cities they live in," says their mother. "I feel sorry for theirwives. They're never going to let each other go."
Says Maurkice,"We don't really think about what it'll be like living in differentplaces."
Says Mike,"One day we'll have to deal with being apart. But not now."
The twins "play with a LOVE FOR THE GAME that rubsoff on everyone," Tebow says. "They're such dominantpersonalities."
"The two keep getting better because they won'tlet each other slack off," says Addazio, their offensive line coach.
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Photograph by Gary Bogdon
DOUBLE TEAM Whether flattening an opponent or enlivening the locker room, Mike (55) and Maurkice are just too much.
Photograph by Gary Bogdon
[See caption above]
Photograph by Gary Bogdon
PROTECTIVE Sacked only 1.22 times per game, Tebow (15) completes 64.9% of his passes behind a line led by the Pounceys.
Photograph by Gary Bogdon
SINGLE-MINDED Maurkice and Mike are looking forward to the Gators' match with Alabama in the SEC championship game.