Until Urban Meyer emerged as a candidate for Florida's head coaching job in December, Chad Jackson had not heard of him. But just 10 months later, the Gators' wide receiver is willing to bank his career on Meyer's virtually unblemished record in generating points and victories.
"He has a 100 percent offensive mentality," Jackson said. "It can't fail."
Thus far, it hasn't. In four seasons as head coach at Bowling Green and Utah, Meyer has lost eight times; only twice in 47 games have his teams not scored at least two touchdowns. As a result, his hybrid spread-option offense has been widely duplicated throughout college football and lauded by no less a mastermind than Bill Belichick, coach of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
When fifth-ranked Tennessee enters the Swamp tomorrow, Meyer, 41, will see for the first time how the Gators fare in the Southeastern Conference, where players possess considerably more size and speed than those in the Mountain West Conference or the Mid-American Conference, where Meyer has previously coached.
Jackson said players feel more prepared than last year under Ron Zook, who was fired after a seven-victory season in 2004. Gator players, particularly Jackson, are confident their attack -- which generally includes four-receiver sets, in-motion receivers and an astute quarterback capable of quickly deciding whether to run, pitch or pass -- is operating near full effectiveness. "We're close," Jackson said in a phone interview.
But in tuneups against Wyoming and Louisiana Tech, sixth-ranked Florida hardly has been tested. And although confidence and talent is evident, coaches said, players' in-game experience at making snap decisions remains limited.
"It's a ways away," said Dan Mullen, Florida's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who helped devise the offense with Meyer almost five years ago.
At that time, Mullen and three assistants joined Meyer to visit Louisville and then Northwestern, Purdue and West Virginia, looking to blend ideas from each program after Meyer became Bowling Green's head coach in 2001. When all the coaches returned to Bowling Green, Ohio, they gathered in an office at Doyt Perry Stadium for a series of meetings over two weeks, diagramming concepts on a grease board and then converting it to computer.
"Obviously it was a very small foundation at that time," Mullen said, "that has grown into a very big house now, all the people that are running our style of offense."
After two seasons at Bowling Green, during which the Falcons went 17-6, Meyer and Mullen went to Utah, where they further mutated the offense to fit their personnel. They spoke with staffs at Navy and Georgia Southern and infused more option into the offense. At Utah, for instance, two of Meyer's five leading rushers were receivers.
After Utah went 12-0 and quarterback Alex Smith became the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft, Meyer's staff received a few dozen calls from other colleges looking to bolster their offense. Belichick and Josh McDaniels, the Patriots' quarterbacks coach, visited Gainesville this past spring to discuss Meyer's philosophy.
"I saw a couple of their plays the other night, and they kind of looked familiar," Mullen said about the Patriots. "They were running some of our stuff, so I think they took one or two things from us."
Much responsibility falls upon the quarterback, who needs to make quick reads based on the movement of the defensive end. There has been considerable concern among Gators supporters about whether quarterback Chris Leak can handle the duties given that he had never called a play in the huddle or changed line protections in two seasons.
Meyer has repeatedly said it is not his offense but rather Leak's offense. Leak, by all accounts, has made strides; he was the only non-senior voted as a team captain; he added six pounds of muscle; and he routinely watched film in the offseason with his wide receiving corps.
"We're adapting it to what Chris does well," Meyer said. "It's all comfort. From Chris's first year at Florida, he obviously became more comfortable the second year. We're just trying to speed up the process."
Tennessee cornerback Jason Allen, who has watched tape on Florida's offense for eight days, is keenly aware of the Gators' offensive aptitude.
"They do so many multiple things," he said in a phone interview. "The players have been around each other for a while. The chemistry is there. . . . They are going to make plays, but we have to limit the big plays."
If it makes any difference, an item advertised as Meyer's 130-page playbook was auctioned Wednesday on eBay for $15.00. When told this, former Florida Coach Steve Spurrier said Tennessee "always had known our audible system and all that. So we knew that they knew, so we usually did some phony stuff. . . . It may have [helped] at times, but usually it is how the players play that determines the win."
Meyer is uninterested in stoking the flames of what often has been a heated rivalry, which will add a new twist tomorrow night with the arrival of Meyer's offense.
"I don't know if they are ready for it," Jackson said, "but they will see a lot of it Saturday."