Monday April 11th, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The parking lot of the Gainesville Hampton Inn last Friday night looked very much like it does before a Florida home game. Orange-and-blue painted messages adorned the rear windshields of SUVs crammed with tailgate supplies. Meanwhile, restaurants and bars across town were overflowing, and a pep rally was being held on campus.

The Gators' home opener, however, still is nearly five months away. This was the scene prior to Saturday's spring game, the aptly named Orange and Blue Debut, which drew an estimated 58,500 spectators (nearly 20,000 more than any previous), among them such former Gators stars as Danny Wuerffel, Jack Youngblood, Shane Matthews, John Reaves, Neal Anderson and Taylor Jacobs. A message scrawled on the back of a Ford Explorer in the aforementioned parking lot summed up the source of such curiosity: "The Urban Legend Begins."

The scrimmage was played under a gloriously sunny Florida sky, which was only appropriate considering Gator Nation has spent much of the previous three years living under a heavy fog. Having suffered through the Ron Zook disaster of 2002-04, the 58,000 came to get a taste of anointed savior Urban Meyer's glitzy new offense and, thanks in part to a set of rules that intentionally "handcuffed" the defense (no blitzing, man coverage only), they got exactly that. Footballs flew through the air from the opening play, with third-year quarterback Chris Leak passing for 168 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter, 17-year-old early enrollee Josh Portis throwing for 253 and four TDs, and receivers Andre Caldwell (eight catches, 148 yards, one TD), Dallas Baker (six, 134, three) and Chad Jackson (seven, 87, one) supplying an endless highlight reel of one-handed grabs and over-the-shoulder catches.

The orange-and-blue faithful surely headed for the exits with visions of championships spinning in their heads. That buzz likely will carry them through the next five months, or at least until the third week of the season, when likely top-five opponent Tennessee comes to town Sept. 17 for what will be the toughest SEC indoctrination imaginable for the former Utah head coach.

"This will be one of the most important offseasons in the history of this program," Meyer said shortly after addressing his team for the final time until August. "We have a talented group of guys. How talented? Some people say they're real, real talented, others say they're average. I say they're somewhere in between, and the [offseason] development will be important."

There's no disputing the collection of talent, most of it accumulated by Zook, a tireless recruiter and all-around nice guy whose tenure was doomed from the start. His detractors began forming the day he was hired as Steve Spurrier's replacement despite no prior head coaching experience (and as athletic director Jeremy Foley's third choice, no less) and grew with each misstep of his three straight five-loss seasons.

That talent is a major reason the 40-year-old Meyer is here, not South Bend, Ind., where most presumed he would flock following Tyrone Willingham's firing last November. Despite his Catholic heritage and previous tenure as an assistant with the Irish, Meyer, who in just four years as a head coach at Bowling Green and Utah has established himself as one of the sport's most innovative offensive minds, was too intrigued by the potential of meshing his unique "spread-option" system with Florida's wealth of speedy athletes. Meyer spent much of the 1990s enamored with Spurrier and the way his teams so often scored at will on their opponents. Though he won't come out and say it, there's just enough cockiness in Meyer to see him aspiring to that same role. If you happened to watch Utah's final regular-season game last year against BYU, when the Utes lined up in a five-wide, shotgun set on fourth-and-goal from the 2, you know there's more than a little Spurrier in him already.

But just because he's inheriting the SEC's leading returning passer, Leak, and a plethora of running backs and receivers with 4.4 speed -- all of them more naturally gifted athletes than he had to work with at Utah -- that doesn't mean Meyer's Gators will instantly start pumping out 46 points and 500 yards per game like Utes did in their 12-0, Fiesta Bowl season. For one, Meyer will be facing tougher competition; secondly, Meyer's intricate offense takes a while to grasp; and, most notably, most of those vaunted athletes (senior Baker, juniors Jackson, Caldwell and running backs Skyler Thornton and DeShawn Wynn) have done little the past two seasons to live up to their hype.

"Our receivers here are not as close to developed as [Utah stars] Steve Savoy and Paris Warren were," said first-year offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who has been with Meyer since Notre Dame. "Those two might not be as fast as the guys here, but the guys here have a long ways to go on the fundamentals and developing the work ethic. We started to see it, though, at the very end [of spring]."

Indeed, Meyer said the receiving corps, which on paper could be one of the finest in the country, improved from a "D" early in spring to "almost an A" by the spring game. The running backs have been a bit of a disappointment, with neither Thornton, Wynn or redshirt freshman Markus Manson emerging as a capable successor to 1,267-yard rusher Ciatrick Fason.

But the most important development of the spring has been the progress of Leak, whose leadership and arm strength Meyer criticized early in spring. The quarterback's job in Meyer's offense requires pinpoint accuracy and intricate decision-making -- on a typical "option" play, Utah's Alex Smith would choose between running it himself, pitching to a running back or motion receiver or tossing a shovel pass -- and while Leak didn't run much Saturday due to his non-contact status, he looked poised and sharp in the passing game, completing 14 of 20 passes for 221 yards and four touchdowns. "He finished [spring] as a quarterback who, there is no doubt in my mind, can run this offense," said Meyer.

Meanwhile, Meyer consistently has heaped praise on the defense, a young unit that started to show promise late season and has at least four emerging stars in junior linebacker Earl Everett, sophomore linebacker Brandon Siler, sophomore strong safety Kyle Jackson and redshirt freshman defensive end Derrick Harvey. "I've seen some really good defenses and I know what good defenses are, and this defense is getting close," Meyer told the Gainesville Sun.

Meyer's imprint on the program in just four months' time goes well beyond offense and defense. After assembling an impressive coaching staff (retaining respected defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and luring veteran south Florida recruiter Doc Holliday from N.C. State and co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from Notre Dame, where Meyer was once an assistant) and a surprisingly strong recruiting class (helped when Portis, a top-five quarterback prospect, decommitted from Utah to follow Meyer to Gainesville), the 2004 national coach of the year went about repairing every last aspect of the program that had become damaged during the Zook era.

Miffed by the lack of toughness he saw on last year's films, he amped up the winter conditioning program, bringing in new strength coach Mickey Marotti (another ex-Notre Dame colleague) to oversee grueling 6 a.m. "mat drills." Concerned about strained relations with the student body, he set out to meet with every fraternity and sorority on campus and initiated a contest to coin a nickname for the student section at the Swamp. He placed phone calls and sent letters to former players -- many of whom felt disenchanted the past few years -- to let them know they were welcome at games and practices. There even was a meeting with the band director to make sure the team will be able to sing the fight song after victories like Meyer's squads did at his previous schools.

With the weight of mammoth expectations set both by himself and Florida's legion of victory-starved fans, Meyer looked visibly worn down while sitting in the coaches' locker room following Saturday's game. He has taken just one day off since arriving for good following the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl, and still he feels like he's "behind."

"The urgency is much greater here because of our schedule and who we play -- I read the preseason stuff, and half our schedule is in the [preseason] rankings," Meyer said. "So, I was hoping we'd be a little further ahead, but I'm not disappointed. I think we'll be OK.

"I really like our staff, I really like the potential of this team and this in the best place in the country. I mean, [nearly] 60,000 for the spring game? Unbelievable."

Gators fans can hardly believe what they're seeing, either.

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