One need only launch fireronzook.com (and likely be blocked by
the heavy traffic to the website) to comprehend what little faith
Florida fans have had in Steve Spurrier's replacement, whose 8--5
record in his inaugural season as coach was the Gators' worst
finish in 13 years. Yet Ron Zook's reputation, which grazed rock
bottom after a series of coaching blunders contributed to a
38--30 Outback Bowl loss to Michigan, is on the rebound. During
halftime of the Jan. 5 nationally televised All-American Bowl, an
all-star game for high school seniors, the country's top-rated
quarterback, Chris Leak of Charlotte, announced his intention to
play for Florida next fall.
Coming one day after former Heisman candidate Rex Grossman said
he would skip his senior season and take his underutilized arm to
the NFL, Leak's declaration prompted one Charlotte Observer
columnist to write that he hoped it was a gag. Why would a kid
who threw a national-record 185 touchdown passes for perennial
state champ Independence High sign on with an offense that had
forsaken the Fun 'n' Gun for a short-range passing attack? The
cocksure Grossman, who in 2002 threw for 494 fewer yards than he
had the year before under Spurrier, seemed confounded by the
complex spread patterns installed by offensive coordinator Ed
Although the 6'1", 210-pound Leak says he would have liked to
have been Grossman's understudy for a season, he was ultimately
sold by Zook's assurance that he will compete for the starting
job. (Leak had asked his final three choices--Florida, Florida
State and Iowa--to FedEx him memos detailing how they planned to
use him.) Because the Gators' attack "is a lot like
Independence's in that you mix a lot of short throws with passes
all over the field," says Leak, "the Florida coaches think that
This opportunity was especially appealing to Chris's father,
Curtis, who feels that his oldest son, C.J., a junior backup
quarterback at Tennessee, wasn't given a fair shot at the Vols'
starting job. "The clincher was when Zook told us the day before
the All-American game that Chris would compete with [redshirt
freshman] Gavin Dickey right off the bat," says Independence
coach Tom Knotts. "A lot of coaches made offers, but Ron has
earned Curtis's trust."
First-time head coach Zook has struggled at times on the
sideline; in the Outback Bowl he went for a two-point conversion
in the second quarter but settled for a one-point kick at a more
crucial point in the game, and on the final drive he okayed a
trick play that backfired, killing the Gators' last chance. But
his success on the recruiting trail should keep Florida in the
SEC title hunt. Already the Gators' 2003 recruiting class has the
potential to be one of the best in a decade. "[Zook's] excitement
about Florida made me excited," says Leak, who spent time over
the past two weeks doing some telephone recruiting of his own.
(He notes that Andre Caldwell, a prized receiver out of Tampa,
recently scheduled an official visit to Gainesville, and Jayson
Swain, a Huntsville, Ala., wideout who committed earlier to
Tennessee, could follow.)
Says recruiting expert Tom Lemming, "Don't be surprised if Chris
Leak is the Pied Piper who brings top players back to Florida."
A mere 11 months before the next Heisman Trophy winner is named,
here's how the race shapes up.
1. Maurice Clarett, RB, Ohio State, Soph. With a veteran line and
a year of experience, a healthy Clarett will be the nation's most
2. Roy Williams, WR, Texas, Sr. If the Longhorns can find a new
passer to put the ball in his vicinity, Williams (above) will
monopolize the highlight reels.
3. Kevin Jones, RB, Virginia Tech, Jr. Healed after his
late-season hamstring injury, he should stand out now that
tag-team partner Lee Suggs is gone.
4. Cody Pickett, QB, Washington, Sr. Standout receiver Reggie
Williams and a seasoned line should help him better his '02 total
of 4,458 passing yards.
5. Brad Smith, QB, Missouri, Soph. The Tigers' dual threat QB was
just the second player to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000
in a season.
ALSO KEEP AN EYE ON: Miami RB Frank Gore, Florida State RB Greg
Jones, N.C. State QB Philip Rivers, Georgia QB David Greene,
Texas RB Cedric Benson. --K.K.