6 Florida

A go-for-broke defense led by a hog-wild linebacker will make Year 3 of the Ron Zook era the best yet
August 15, 2004

Heard the one about the Gator and the hog? For Channing Crowder’s teammates, stories about the sophomore linebacker’s piggyback-riding never get old. “You should’ve seen him jump on the back of this 200-pound hog last year,” says sophomore linebacker Earl Everett, one of several Florida players who’ve joined Crowder on excursions to south Georgia, where a friend owns land. “He grabs hold of the thing and just rides along, hollering and screaming.” Crowder says the hobby helps his game. “It’s just like making a tackle,” he says. “You’ve got to run ’em down and throw ’em down.”

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. “Look at the Ole Miss game,” says defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, referring to a 20–17 loss that Crowder missed with torn knee cartilage. “Put Channing in there, and we win.”

Crowder’s aggressiveness isn’t always for the best. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery after fighting outside a Gainesville nightclub in April ’03 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’s North Springs High--and onfield. Strong remembers Crowder arriving on campus last year and promising that if he didn’t make 20 tackles a game, he’d “come close.” With projected starter Todd McCullough injured, Crowder got his chance, and though he didn’t get his 20 tackles, he did average 9.8 in nine starts. “Sometimes in the film room we’d just watch Channing,” says sophomore defensive lineman Ray McDonald. “He flies to every ball, puts his body on the line.”

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 8–5 finishes. Strong has challenged Crowder to be a leader on the field. Crowder, of course, is game. “Anything that’ll get us winning,” he says, “sounds like fun to me.” --K.K.

FAST FACTS

2003 RECORD 8–5 (6–2, T1 in SEC East)

FINAL AP RANK 24

RETURNING STARTERS 8

KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)

QB Chris Leak (Soph.)

6–3 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

TELLING NUMBER

14

Consecutive seasons in which Florida has won at least six SEC games; Alabama is second alltime with six, from 1961 through ’66.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

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.

SCHEDULE

Sept. 4 MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE

        11 EASTERN MICHIGAN

        18 at Tennessee

        25 KENTUCKY

Oct. 2 ARKANSAS

        9 LSU

        23 at Mississippi State

        30 vs. Georgia*

Nov. 6 at Vanderbilt

        13 SOUTH CAROLINA

        20 at Florida State

*at Jacksonville

COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS GATOR GO-GETTER Backs should get used to being pulled down by Crowder, who hit triple digits in tackles last year.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)