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Meyer pointing Florida in the right direction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - As Jeremy Foley sat in his Salt Lake City hotel room on that night last December, the Florida athletic director anxiously followed on television what was happening in the Urban Meyer coaching sweepstakes.

Foley, who had met with Meyer for a second time earlier in the day, turned on the television and watched live coverage of the Notre Dame entourage arriving from and returning to South Bend on a private plane.

"Obviously there was competition," Foley recalled recently. "When Notre Dame let Tyrone Willingham go, that turned the stakes up. It wasn't a fun evening, trust me. I didn't get much sleep that night."

Whatever worries Foley had about Meyer choosing a school he had rooted for as a kid growing up in the Ohio town of Ashtabula and later coached at as an assistant for five seasons under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie were gone the next day when word got out that Meyer was leaving Utah for Florida.

Foley and the rest of the Gator Nation have been sleeping soundly since.

These days, there is no mention here of former coach Ron Zook, who was never given a chance after replacing Steve Spurrier and lost more games in three years - 15 - than Spurrier had in the first half of his 12-year reign.

There is hardly any mention of Spurrier, either, and probably won't be until the week of the South Carolina game in mid-November, when the Gators go on the road to face the school's former coach and his new team.

And there certainly won't be much talk about Spurrier in the future as long as Florida keeps winning.

"It's a different situation," Foley said one morning last week in his office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. "That pressure of replacing Steve obviously had an impact on Coach Zook, the perception of his program, the fact that Urban's one guy removed is certainly helpful to him."

But things can change in a hurry, and tonight's game against fifth-ranked Tennessee (1-0) will be a barometer of sorts for Meyer and the sixth-ranked Gators (2-0). Until Florida fell to Tennessee in 2001, Spurrier's last season, the Gators had never lost to the Vols at the Swamp under the "Ol' Ball Coach."

"Expectations are high, but I don't really think about it," said Meyer, 41. "The pressure is to stand up in front of our team like I will in a few hours, to let them know we will have them prepared. That's the only pressure, that and raising a family."

Meyer has obviously handled the rigors of being a Division 1-A head coach well. His rise in the ranks has been as meteoric as his results have been impressive. In a little over four seasons, Meyer's teams have gone 41-8, including what is now an 18-game winning streak.

Asked whether he is surprised at his rapid ascent, Meyer said, "I haven't really had time to think about it, but I think anybody would be surprised. I've been lucky to have great players and [assistant] coaches. There are a lot of great coaches out there with bad players."

With answers like that, Meyer seems like the anti-Spurrier. Yet there are those who look at Meyer as sort of a younger version, minus the cockiness and the low golf handicap, and hope for the same success that produced seven Southeastern Conference titles and a national championship.

Mostly, they see an innovative coach whose teams score in droves.

Meyer's spread offense, which reversed the fortunes of both Utah and Bowling Green and turned their quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Omar Jacobs, into NFL prospects, could be just as revolutionary in the SEC as Spurrier's "Fun n' Gun" was back in 1990.

So impressive was the offense for the unbeaten Utes last season that Meyer hosted both New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a three-time Super Bowl winner, as well as Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, a former national college coach of the year, shortly after he arrived here last spring.

Meyer, who said he took the core of his offense from former Louisville coach John L. Smith, put out the spread for Belichick and Beamer as well as members of their respective staffs.

"I appreciate those guys doing it," Meyer said as he headed back to his office after practice one afternoon last week. "I asked those guys as many questions as I could and tried to implement some of the things they do. I think it's intriguing to people."

Meyer was similarly intrigued a few years back. His interest in what has become his signature offense grew while he was Notre Dame's receivers coach under Davie. Meyer recalled how David Givens, now with the Patriots, had been shut down during an overtime loss against Nebraska.

The top-ranked Cornhuskers hadn't smothered the talented tight end as much as Meyer had merely forgotten about getting him the ball.

"He didn't touch the ball one time, and that was my fault," Meyer said. "I always believe that the guys that have a chance to help you have to touch the ball."

That's why junior wide receiver Chad Jackson has already caught 15 passes and has scored six touchdowns in Florida's first two games, including four in a season-opening win over Wyoming, after having 32 receptions and seven touchdowns, his first two seasons.

That's why Meyer has found a way to incorporate quarterback Josh Portis, a freshman who had orally committed to Utah, into an offense that might be more suited to him than to starter Chris Leak. Portis, considered the fastest high school quarterback last season, has run 10 times.

"It's kind of what I played in high school, wide open, four wide [receivers]," said Jackson, who has also scored running the ball. "It's something I hadn't seen in a long time. I like it a lot."

Not that everyone is totally comfortable in the spread. Despite connecting on 39 of 56 passes for 539 yards, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions and being ranked eighth among Division 1-A quarterbacks in passing efficiency, Leak admitted that the option element of the offense is still a work in progress.

"That's something we have to improve on as the season goes on," Leak, a junior, said of a running game that's produced only 171 yards a game and 4 yards a carry, more than 90 yards fewer a game than the Utes got last year.

Meyer admits that he has had to tweak the offense a bit to fit Leak's game as more of a traditional passer.

"If the quarterback is good enough to win, you change things," Meyer said. "I think successful coaches do that. I hear coaches say, 'Yeah, we'd like to run the option, we just don't have that type of player.' That's the coach's job. The players are the ones who win games. Coaches have very little to do with winning games."

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