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Great expectations: Gators are buying into Urban's renewal

Florida football coach Urban Meyer has persuaded his players to buy into his spread-option offense.
Florida football coach Urban Meyer has persuaded his players to buy into his spread-option offense.
Phil Sandlin, Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chad Jackson didn't believe the hype.

All that funky spread option offense stuff new University of Florida coach Urban Meyer ran in Utah? Not in the SEC, dude.

"That's not going to work," said the junior wide receiver of his first impressions about Meyer's innovative attack. "It might work in the Mountain West, but it's not going to work down here."

It's hardly the first time Meyer's had his doubters. His offense wasn't supposed to work at Bowling Green. It wasn't supposed to work at Utah. Then again, Mountain West schools weren't supposed to crash the Bowl Championship Series party.

Yet there the Meyer-led Utes were in Tucson last January, finishing off a surprising 12-0 season by drubbing Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.

Still, Jackson worried how Meyer's little baby would translate in the orderly and old-fashioned SEC, where the quarterbacks throw, the running backs run, the wide receivers catch and the coaches speak in good ol' boy cliches.

Here's this young guy from a place where it gets cold in the winter coming in with his new ideas, talking about quarterbacks running and wide receivers catching shovel passes and running backs lining up in the slot. It didn't seem right. Not at first anyway.

Then Jackson got to thinking.

The Gators had gone 15-10 in his two seasons in Gainesville, mixing upbeat wins with upsetting losses that eventually cost former head coach Ron Zook his job.

Maybe he needed to give the new guy a chance. Jackson didn't come to Florida to play in the Peach Bowl every year.

"Whatever it takes," Jackson said. "There's always time for change."

And if there's one thing the 41-year-old Meyer has brought to Gainesville since accepting the job in December, it's change. He closed the locker room during summer workouts and forced the players to bring their own gear to conditioning drills. He created a leadership committee, asking players to be accountable to their teammates, not just themselves. He's tried to remind them playing football at the University of Florida — much like coaching there — is a privilege, not a right.

It's Meyer's new-school way of getting back to old-school principles. And it's working. While their SEC brethren kept seeing their players pop up on the police blotter, things have been quiet.

"His ability to motivate people and develop people is unbelievable," said senior linebacker Todd McCullough. "Accountability. Trust. Responsibility. He demands them all."

For a program that struggled to gain positive momentum under Zook, Meyer's hiring has galvanized Gator Nation. His speaking engagements at Gator Clubs throughout the state turned into mini-carnivals. Message boards breathlessly talk about Florida's return to SEC dominance.

Meyer hasn't coached a down and already he's gained legendary status. He admits the attention has gotten a bit out of hand. Last time he checked, he just called the plays, he didn't execute them.

"It's not just Urban Meyer's offense," said Meyer, who is 39-8 in four seasons, two at Utah, two at Bowling Green. "The minute you start talking about that, it takes the attention off the players. The players are the ones that do it."

And what the players want to do, namely, is win. Meyer's hiring has raised the bar back to Steve Spurrier-esque levels. That's fine by the Gators. That's where they wanted it to be in the first place.

"This year carries a lot of expectations and a lot of weight," said senior center Mike Degory. " . . . I came here to have the opportunity to live up to those expectations."

They won't lack for opportunities. The schedule features games against four preseason Top 25 teams (LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State) and a visit to Columbia, S.C., in mid-November to face a certain visored ball coach who used to be the former Saint of Gainesville.

To survive, the Gators will need to develop the things Meyer can't diagram in a playbook, like toughness and an ability to finish off an opponent. Too often under Zook the Gators squandered 50-plus minutes of hard work in the final moments (Florida State 2003, Miami 2003, LSU 2004, Tennessee 2004).

"Toughness and finishing are the two things that this team is being challenged on right now," Meyer said. "If we don't (do those things), we'll be an average team again."

And there is nothing average about the Gators. Ask Meyer about the talent on both sides of the ball, and he's almost got to bite his cheeks to keep from laughing. The personnel is a little bit more talented than the hand he was dealt at Utah, where he turned quarterback Alex Smith into a Heisman Trophy finalist.

"We have this many wide-outs," Meyer said, holding up four fingers, one each for Jackson, Andre Caldwell, Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius, "that can go. We've never had that in this system before."

"I've never experienced anything like it," Jackson said. "It's very different. Everybody can get the ball at any time. The stuff we do, it's not like anything anybody else has ever done."

So maybe Meyer can do what no first-year Gator coach has ever done: lead Florida to the SEC title. It's a long way from Bowling Green to the SEC. Meyer has spent the last eight months proving to his players he belongs. It's up to them to prove they do, too.