FAIRHOPE, Ala. – Less than three weeks after capturing the national championship, Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't receive the largest ovation at Monday's Senior Bowl practice.
That honor belonged to a former Florida Gator.
When Saban rolled up to visit with NFL coaches Monday afternoon, he received a loud welcome from the crowd.
After practice ended, it was former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow who received an ovation that bordered on rock-star stuff. Fans didn't just beg for the South quarterback's autographs; they squealed at him like little girls at a boy-band concert.
Welcome to the Cult of Tebow, which in some ways is wonderful as young boys beam with admiration and young girls talk about wanting to marry him. But while the public consistently gushes, many NFL coaches and executives are uneasy about his ability to make it in the next level.
More specifically, there are those concerned that Tebow could get drafted too high by a team hoping to cash in on his popularity as much as his talent. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver has suggested the team would consider drafting Tebow and Florida governor Charlie Crist has publicly campaigned for it.
"He's a player you want, but the question is how much," one NFL assistant coach said. "If you're talking about him as a first-rounder, that's a big risk. He's big, he's strong, he's dedicated, he's coachable, but it's going to take a lot of work.
"Yeah, he could be a diamond in the rough, but you'd rather take that chance a little later."
On Monday, Tebow struggled with everything from taking a snap under center (something he never did in college or high school) to his release point on throws to cleaning up his mechanics. His elongated delivery, which features him dropping the ball almost to his knees before delivering, is reminiscent of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Byron Leftwich(notes).
"I've been pretty used to dealing with criticism since I was in eighth and ninth grade," Tebow said. "I can handle it. I'm a pretty self-motivated person, but if anything it adds a little motivation.
"All new guys out here, throwing to new receivers, taking snaps from a new center, it was a lot to get adjusted to. But it was fun … I thought it was fine. Sometimes you get frustrated. You don't want to drop the ball under, things like that. It just takes time to get used to."
More importantly, none of that is irreparable and coaches such as Saban, Don Shula and Tony Dungy have all praised Tebow. Dungy went so far as to say he thought Tebow was definitely worthy of a first-round pick.
Furthermore, in this age of so many spread-option offenses at the college level, learning to take the snap from under center is almost basic training in the NFL. Of greater concern for Tebow will be learning not to run as much as he did in college (he broke the Southeastern Conference record for career rushing touchdowns). Then again, Steve Young learned that lesson on his way to the Hall of Fame.
But while critics continue to point out legitimate concerns, fans can't get enough of Tebow – as Monday showed – and owners know that. His character, Christian values, work ethic and good looks have made him a fan favorite. Even some NFL coaches have been asking Tebow for his autograph. Tebow and his mother are scheduled to be featured in a commercial during the Super Bowl game.
Tebow is a marketing phenomenon as much as he's a successful athlete.
Spectator Genny Lasseter brought her twin 18-year-old daughters to practice. She lightly joke that she was trying to get them interested in Tebow.
"They both said, 'He's too old,' " said Lasseter, who was decked out in a Florida sweatshirt.
Still, she's not unlike so many women who would like to see their daughters matched with a man who appears to have such wonderful qualities.
"It goes beyond football," Lasseter said. "He's a great athlete, but the character of Tim Tebow is rare today. He's someone you want your kids to be like."
There were plenty of young boys at Monday's practice admiring the former Heisman Trophy winner, who helped Florida to two national championships and landed on the cover of one magazine after another.
Jacob Ribollo, 12, stood behind a group of roughly 25 reporters as Tebow was interviewed. Decked out in a Florida sweatshirt with his cross resting in front of it, Ribollo smiled so long and broadly as he tried to listen to Tebow, his muscles might permanently stick in that glowing look.
"He's just an amazing quarterback," Ribollo said after he chased Tebow down in hopes of an autograph.
Caeleb Williams, 10, was there with his parents and two cousins (two of the three boys were wearing Tebow jerseys). Asked what he liked about Tebow, Williams was glibly pointed.
"He's a Christian quarterback," Williams said.
Tebow has a story that people cling to, particularly here in the Bible Belt. Hence, three young men from the production company Fiction have been chronicling Tebow's every move since the Sugar Bowl and intend to follow Tebow to his first NFL game.
"He is who he says he is," said Chase Heavener, the head of Fiction. "He's very comfortable saying what he believes and people gravitate to him as a result. … He's very comfortable with the fans and he's really trying to take in the whole experience, like when he runs around the stadium high-fiving the fans.
"We were outside the place where he trains [in Franklin, Tenn.,] and this girl, she was probably 12 years old, comes up and asks, 'Where's Tim Tebow?' We said we didn't know. She said, 'He's my future husband, but he doesn't know it.' "
The immediate issue is whether he's a future NFL quarterback. In that respect, his draft status will have a huge impact on him. If he's a first-round pick, there will be pressure for him to play early, particularly given his popularity.
Can Tebow fix all his problems fast enough? Will playing too early spoil him? Is he just plain good enough?
These are complicated questions. To his credit, Tebow has assembled an impressive crew to help him. He's working with trainer Will Bartholomew of D1 Sports for his conditioning and with former NFL coaches Zeke Bratkowski on his mechanics and Marc Trestman on learning schemes.
Moreover, Tebow isn't a prima donna on the field. As he struggled through the day, he listened intently to Miami Dolphins quarterback coach David Lee (the Dolphins are coaching the South team this week).
"You can see that he takes to coaching," former Washington Redskins coach and NFL quarterback Jim Zorn said as he watched Tebow from the sideline. "Somebody is going to get a young man that is really going to work hard to be successful."