This, as Lane Kiffin says, is the time of year for experiments, which is how Kiffin describes Tennessee's flirtation with athletic freshman Nu'Keese Richardson in the shotgun through the first few days of practice. Every offense demands the versatility of the Wildcat guy now -- especially one like Tennessee's, saddled with a couple ponderous runners who are even more frightening when they drop back to pass. When your existing options are Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens, it pays to expand those options by any means necessary.
When you've have Tim Tebow, though, then what options aren't at your disposal? Florida's scheme -- its running game especially -- the last two years has already been a ton of motion/misdirection-heavy sets revolving around a running quarterback in the shotgun, who in this happens to be possibly the only quarterback capable of consistently executing a one-man play-action pass. So it is definitely a touch more perplexing when Florida not only floats the notion of moving an All-SEC cornerback into the gun, as the Gators did last week, but actually decides to give it a shot:
"It's pretty realistic," [Joe Haden] said. "I've been running some plays and coach has been looking and it's gone real nice. Coach Meyer and coach (Steve) Addazio really like it."
When asked if he planned to steal Tim Tebow's job, Haden said, "No, I'm not going to steal it, I'm going to borrow it for a second. I'm real excited about it. ... I've been working with the quarterback coach (Scot Loeffler) after practice. I don't know how they're going to do it."
Except slightly more obvious because Haden, unlike an offensive regular like Percy Harvin, will set the defense's antennae buzzing just walking onto the field.
The question is why? Not just why Haden instead of Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps, Andre Debose or any of the other speedsters Urban Meyer has lying around in ludicrous abundance, any of whom could get to the edge as quickly as Haden without instantly alerting the defense before even lining up. Haden was an impressive high school quarterback with 7,000 passing yards to his name, but if you're looking for a runner who can presents a passing threat to keep defenses honest ... well, you know.
If the answer is, "It's just a one-off thing in August, we're not really going to use it," then it's just another boring entry to the preseason file. But if Haden does expect to have even a little role in the offense, the most plausible explanation is the old emphasis on reducing the load on the Tebow Child in the running game. They accomplished that to an extent last year, when Tebow's carries dropped from 16 carries per game to 12 and the number of 15-carry games fell from eight in 2007 to four. Though he still ran twice as often as any other back on the team, his share of overall carries was reduced from 43 percent to 32 percent.
Surely, though, if it's even remotely serious, it's part of a clear move away from the notion of Tebow as "a running quarterback," right? They hired the NFL mentor to futzed with his throwing motion; they've been toying around with the I-formation and more "pro style" sets; now there's speculation about a different runner from the gun. Collectively, that adds up to an emphasis on both reducing the hits on Tebow and casting him in a more scout-friendly light -- and, maybe, removing a little dead weight: Tebow's per-carry average has dropped from 5.3 asa freshman to 4.3 as a sophomore to 3.8 last year, with corresponding decreases even on third down and third-and-short carries. The top four runners behind Tebow, on the other hand, collectively averaged eight yards a pop, and three of them return. So that makes sense.
But then, there's no sense in undermining the essential, unique Tebow-ness of Tebow, either, without which Florida would not have won a championship last year (or in 2006, for that matter, considering the role he played in the win over LSU) and likely won't win one again -- it's no coincidence that of the four games that Tebow did log 15 carries, three of them in the nail-biters against Ole Miss, Alabama and Oklahoma, when they were the most crucial. Against Oklahoma, his only 100-yard game of the season, the dormant scrambler took over with 44 yards on six carries (including three straight first-down runs) on the Gators' third quarter drive for a go-ahead touchdown, and when he carried on five straight plays for 31 yards to run the final minutes off the clock. That, on the heels of his first fourth quarter comeback to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship, was probably Tebow's most memorable performance of the year in its resourcefulness when the rest of Florida's fireworks display was sputtering. He personally earned the right to pull out the gator chomp in Nic Harris' face. Not that anyone is trying, but it's worth reminding anyway that that level of total physical and emotional abandon -- Tebow's trademark from the very beginning, and probably the one element of his game that most bothers his critics at the next level -- is the last thing that should ever be polished away.