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Thursday, September 19, 2002
Graham back to restore Gators ground game

By Bob Harig
Special to

For all the talk of Steve Spurrier's high flying offense, his Fun 'N Gun, his pitch-it-around-the-field personality, the former Florida coach knew the importance of the running game.
Earnest Graham
Earnest Graham had two touchdowns to help lift Florida on a stormy, sloppy night.

He might not admit it, perhaps to make you think even more about the passing game, but the ol' Ball Coach almost always had a 1,000-yard rusher during his 12-year tenure with the Gators, certainly one capable of keeping defenses honest.

Not coincidentally, in the final two defeats of his collegiate coaching career, Spurrier's Florida team failed miserably when it came to running the ball in losses to Auburn and Tennessee last season. Top tailback Earnest Graham missed both games with a knee injury.

Graham is back, and the 10th-ranked Gators (2-1) are headed to Tennessee (2-0) on Saturday, where the fourth-ranked Vols await. New Gator coach Ron Zook could have no better friend right now than Graham.

It's almost frightening to consider what life will be like for Zook if Florida fails against rival Tennessee. To be 2-2 and all but out of the Bowl Championship Series picture before the end of September would give Zook's critics plenty to scream about. Especially if the Gators are manhandled as they were two weeks ago against No. 1 Miami.

Now it's no shame to lose to the defending national champions. But to lose by 25 points at home -- Spurrier needed 12 years and five games to lose by that many points -- well, Zook doesn't need to hear so many comparisons.

So it would be best to give the ball to Graham, and give it to him often.

Gators' Mitchell Out Vs. Vols
Florida offensive lineman Mo Mitchell missed his second straight day of practice Thursday while he takes care of some personal and academic problems, coach Ron Zook said.

Zook said Mitchell would miss Saturday's game against Tennessee, but would return to the team next week.

"His plan is to go home this weekend and be back next week,'' Zook said.

Mitchell, a 6-foot-7, 350-pound sophomore, worked with the first-team offensive line for almost all of the preseason, but lost his spot to sophomore Jonathan Colon when he missed a day of practice for an undisclosed personal reason at the end of two-a-days.
-- The Associated Press

Why? Because it is quite obvious that quarterback Rex Grossman does not have the supporting cast to help him this season. The next time he throws a pass off his back foot will be, oh, about the 500th this season. He's been under constant pressure in three games, with the coaching staff trying to find the right combination on the offensive line. So far, Grossman has completed just 52 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

"You can say what you want but (Earnest) Graham is probably a first rounder, (backup Ran) Carthon looks like a first rounder, (Rex) Grossman is probably a first rounder, (receiver Taylor) Jacobs is a first rounder,'' said UT coach Phil Fulmer. "It's the biggest offensive line in the history of college football and they have two tight ends that match up with anybody in the country. I don't see where the problem is.''

Well, the problem is Grossman, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year, threw for threw for 3,896 yards and a completion rate of 66 percent. He also threw 34 touchdown passes.

The new offense, under the direction of Ed Zaunbrecher, has incorporated more shotgun and no-huddle than Spurrier used. And so far, it has been less efficient, for whatever reasons.

"I've been in situations where you put in new systems and I know that there's a learning curve and growing pains,'' Zook said. "But we're getting better at them, and that's the thing that I feel good about.''

Trouble is, why not rely on a proven commodity such as Graham, especially if the passing game is struggling? Against Miami, Graham broke off several nifty runs and gained 89 yards on 20 carries, including a touchdown. But in the third quarter, with the game in the balance, the Gators kept throwing near the goal line instead of giving the ball to Graham. It's hindsight now, but a Grossman pass was picked off and returned 97 yards for a touchdown. Before the interception, UF trailed 27-16. A touchdown would have brought the Gators within 4 points.

Zaunbrecher, who came from Marshall where his team's offensive numbers were similar to Florida's, professed a need to have a solid running game. Even though his teams never relied on it at Marshall, he said there would be an emphasis on the running game this year. He even predicted that Carthon could have big numbers, too.

"If everything works the way you would like for it to, we'll have a couple of guys that get up close to that number (1,000 yards),'' said Zaunbrecher, who through three games is exactly 50-50 runs and passes. "That's what you'd like to do ideally, depending on injuries and how everything develops. But that would make us a much better offense for Earnest to be that big a presence. And then, Ran, also being a guy when he's in there, is the same type of threat.''

So far, the Gators have been far less of an offensive threat. They don't seem capable of putting up the gaudy offensive numbers, at least not against quality opposition. Last week, they managed just 34 points in a lackluster victory over winless Ohio.

Now it's on to Tennessee, the team that ruined SEC and national title dreams for the Gators last season. Those are far-away thoughts now for a team trying to find itself. But Gator fans remember the number former UT tailback Travis Stephens did on them. He had 226 yards and two touchdowns in the Vols' 34-32 win. UF managed just 36 yards on the ground.

Tennessee lost four starters from its offensive line last season, but so far has been impressive against inferior competition. The Vols have held their opponents to just 5 points per game and allowed a touchdown in just one quarter. Of course, the opponents were Wyoming and Middle Tennessee, not Florida.

Of course, Florida -- so far -- has not been Florida.

Bob Harig covers college football for the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at