MORTON GROVE, Ill. (AP)—Quarterback Chris Leak and Florida got familiar with Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense in the first year of the coach’s regime.
Improvement is expected from both quarterback and coach as expectations continue to rise for the seventh-ranked Gators, who can show they are ready when they open 2006 by hosting Southern Mississippi on Saturday.
Meyer’s teams at Bowling Green and Utah made significant strides in his second year at those schools and the same is expected at Florida, where it’s still to be determined whether a spread offense will work in the SEC.
The Gators finished 9-3 last season and beat Iowa 31-24 in the Outback Bowl, but it could’ve been considered an overachieving year.
Leak, a senior, struggled to fit in with the offense in 2005 and Meyer recruited highly-rated prospect Tim Tebow, whose game fits the offense better.
But for now, Leak, who has thrown 65 touchdown passes, is the starter.
“I’m very comfortable, especially being around the same guys for two years and being around the same coaches,” said Leak, who needs 2,605 passing yards to become the Gators’ all-time leader. “You have a higher comfort level with everybody.”
Helping Leak is the presence of a talented group of wide receivers in Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell and Jemalle Cornelius.
“I think a lot of this offense comes down to the ability for our guys to make plays,” offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. “If you’re going to be an explosive, high-scoring offense, you have to make a lot of big plays and have a lot of big playmakers. If we get some guys that step up into that role and can do those things, that’s when you’ll see the offensive explosion.”
Meyer’s Utah team in 2004 went 12-0 and beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. Quarterback Alex Smith was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Utes were third in the nation in total offense.
In 2002, Bowling Green finished ninth in total offense in Meyer’s second year.
He’s expecting similar success this season as the Gators battle a difficult schedule, including games against Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Florida State.
“You have to keep adapting,” said Meyer, who has a career record of 48-11. “The Year 1 offense at Utah was significantly different from Year 2. They were far different from Bowling Green. You have to look at who you’re playing. You have to look at what you have.”
Florida must replace four starters on the offensive line and hope running back DeShawn Wynn emerges as a key player. The running game is vital to the spread-option offense and last year, Meyer called the unit “trash.”
“If I gave you a chance to do something twice, you would expect that you’re going to do it better the second time around,” Baker said. “We have a chance and we plan to make the most of it.”
Florida’s opponent in Week 1 will provide a stern test. One of the most successful Division I-A programs over the last 12 years, Southern Mississippi has flown mostly under the radar.
The Golden Eagles, who finished 7-5 last season and beat Arkansas State 31-19 in the New Orleans Bowl, are one of just seven teams with 12 or more straight winning seasons. They’ve advanced to a bowl in eight of the last nine years.
The main reason for the continuity is coach Jeff Bower, who has 103 wins in 15 years since taking charge at his alma mater.
“He wants everything done perfectly,” said quarterback Stephen Reaves, one of two players competing for the starting job. “And if that’s the way he wants to do it, everybody’s going to follow because you can’t question a coach who’s won 12 years in a row and made it to a bowl game almost every year.”
Bower, though, selected junior quarterback Jeremy Young over Reaves—a transfer from Michigan State—to make his second career start on Saturday. Young replaces Dustin Almond, who threw for 2,860 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
“What Jeremy needs is playing experience and he’s going to get it,” Bower said. “He needs to get out there and cut loose.”
Young will have an edge as the Golden Eagles’ offensive line returns four starters and allowed just nine sacks last season.
Florida has won all four meetings between the schools. The teams last met in 1997, with the Gators winning 21-6 in Gainesville.
Florida has won 16 straight season openers, the longest streak in the SEC.