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Gators have speed to burn ... and use it all

1/7/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- One of Urban Meyer's stated goals when he took over at Florida was to make the Gators the fastest football team in America.

A more pressing goal was to win championships.

As Florida gets set to go for its second BCS national championship in three years Thursday night against Oklahoma, it's safe to say the two have gone hand-in-hand.

"You can go down our lineup, and we've got five or six dudes who can go under 4.2 (in the 40-yard dash) and seven or eight dudes who can go under 4.3, and it just goes on down the list from there," said Florida running back/receiver Percy Harvin, who's scored touchdowns in the last 14 games in which he's played, the longest such streak in the country.

Harvin's easily Florida's most dynamic player, and even when he's nursing a sprained ankle, scares you to death if you're trying to defend him.

But with the Gators, those guys are everywhere. And what's so impressive about what Meyer has done is that he hasn't just collected a bunch of fast guys trying to play football.

He's collected a bunch of guys who are really good football players and can also fly.

"There has to be a toughness there, too, a willingness to play the game at the tempo we want and with the passion we want," Meyer said. "As an example, a lot of those guys got their start here on special teams."

Case in point: Freshman running back Jeffery Demps.

He set the national high school record and tied the world junior record for his age group when he ran a 10.01 in the 100-meter dash this past summer at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Demps has scored seven touchdowns this season, and five of them have been 36 yards or longer. His average scoring run is 32.7 yards, and it's no coincidence that his emergence into the offense starting with the Arkansas game (along with fellow speedster Chris Rainey) was about the same time Florida really began to click offensively.

Demps, though, has also blocked two punts on special teams this season and plays on the kickoff coverage team.

"I believe we have the fastest team in the country, and when you have the speed we have and spread it around the way we do, that just makes it harder on the defense," Demps said. "A lot of times we get matched up with linebackers, and there's not a linebacker in the country who can run a 4.2 or 4.3."

Meyer points out that Florida's speed advantage against Oklahoma won't be nearly as pronounced as in some games this season. And Oklahoma cornerback Dominique Franks said speed goes just so far.

"To me, no matter how fast a team is, there's only one ball out there," Franks said. "You gotta know who's got the ball and fly around and get 11 hands on the ball at all times."

That may be, but Harvin has seen enough of the Sooners' defense on tape to think that the Gators have an excellent chance to add to their astonishing big-play total. They've produced nine or more plays of 20-plus yards in each of their last four games.

And of Florida's 79 touchdowns this season, 47 have been scored by the 12 players on the team who run sub-4.4 40-yard dashes.

"They're big, but they can't run with us," Harvin said of the Sooners on defense. "If we can get matchups with some of their linebackers on our receivers, we feel we can bust the game open and make some big plays."

When the Gators do get those matchups, they better capitalize, according to Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

"Where the speed really kicks in is the open-field opportunities," Mullen said. "They're not going to give us a lot of open-field opportunities. But when we do get them, we've got to make a play."

The Gators have had 20 different players to touch the ball on offense this season, a testament to their commitment to use every bit of their speed.

Senior receiver Louis Murphy admits that he wondered at the start of the season if team chemistry would be impacted with so many athletes on offense all wanting the ball in their hands.

"But it wasn't that at all," said Murphy, who ranks first on the team in catches (36) and receiving yards (611). "It was more, 'If you get the ball, go make something happen.' I thought there was no way in the world everybody would be satisfied. But everybody accepted their role. We came together as one and knew we could accomplish more as a team."

Meyer's motto is that you can never have enough speed. The trick is running the kind of offense where you can utilize that speed.

"If you run a style of offense where you're not utilizing them, then you have issues," he said.

Of course, there is an ongoing argument on Florida's team that just won't die: Who's the fastest player on the team?

Demps says it's him. Some point to Rainey. Murphy says not to count him out, while redshirt freshman Deonte Thompson may be the dark horse.

Harvin said the answer lies in the nicknames.

"We call Demps and Rainey gazelles, and a lot of them call me the cheetah," Harvin said.

For the record, cheetahs are the fastest creatures in the world on land.

But, then, Harvin already knew that.

"Yep, that's right," he said with a confident nod.