Leadership has propelled the Gators to six straight wins

Florida QB Tim Tebow appears to have kept his vow to work harder and push his teammates to do the same.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Florida QB Tim Tebow appears to have kept his vow to work harder and push his teammates to do the same.

GAINESVILLE — "I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. And you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. And you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of this season."

When quarterback Tim Tebow spoke those words nearly two months ago, in an emotional address shortly after Florida's one-point loss to unranked Mississippi, few knew what to make of it.

In hindsight, his words seem prophetic.

Since that 31-30 loss Sept. 27, Florida has won six consecutive games. And it's not just that the Gators are winning; it's how. In those six games, Florida has outscored its opponents 299-63.

The dramatic turnaround, the players said, is a direct result of something the Gators sorely lacked all of last season and early this year: leadership, competition and chemistry.

"It's all about leadership," junior linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "Guys like Tebow, and myself and Percy Harvin. We're just staying on guys, humbling them and letting them know that on any given day we can be beat. We saw it against Ole Miss. Since then, everybody has paid attention to detail. We don't want to take anything for granted."

This time last year, coach Urban Meyer could count on one hand the number of true leaders on his squad. The Gators finished 9-4. Things have changed, along with Florida's record.

"The good thing now is I can count 14 or 15 leaders, and last year it was two or three," Meyer said. "I've never given a team another day off during a bye week. After the LSU game, we did that because they earned that right. There is no charity or gifts. A year ago, we would have gone an extra day in full pads because that's the kind of team we were dealing with. Little things count, and the good thing is we have more than four or five guys leading."

On the field, there has been another element to this turnaround: the battle for job security. Meyer has made it clear that nobody's job is safe, and playing time is won and lost during Tuesday and Wednesday practices each week.

The running back position is a four-way battle among Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Kestahn Moore and Emmanuel Moody. Ahmad Black and Major Wright are well aware that freshman Will Hill is emerging at safety. Lawrence Marsh and Brandon Antwine are pushing each other at outside linebacker. The punt and kickoff return team is so competitive, players are begging Meyer for a chance to try out.

"Guys know they have to bring it every day," Harvin, a junior, said.

"If you don't show it in practice, you're not going to be playing," Meyer added. Solid leadership and brutal competition has also bred a chemistry among the players that Meyer said borders on "phenomenal."

"One of the best examples was when we blocked a field goal at Kentucky and Major Wright ran it back," Meyer said. "The entire team mauled him on the sideline because they understand the effort. They have an appreciation for what one another can do. The chemistry is really good. I see the conversation. They really care about each other. … I've been a coach for 25 years and I've seen about three or four teams with great chemistry."

As No. 3 Florida prepares (9-1) to play the Citadel (5-6) on Saturday, with huge games against Florida State and Alabama in the SEC title game still to come, the leaders on this team continue to remind everyone, "Remember Ole Miss."

"We've been blowing people out, so it could be easy to take a team for granted," Spikes said. "But just like what happened at Ole Miss. I'm not saying we took them for granted, but our preparation was not the way it needed to be to be able to play the game we needed to play. We had turnovers. We gave up big plays and that comes from preparation throughout the week. Since that game, we look at the smaller things and we just want to come out and get better every week."

As for Tebow, he's still standing behind that promise he made.

"We have a chance for something even bigger than the SEC (championship) now, so every game is a huge part of that," Tebow said. "We have to stay focused. … You will not have to worry about this team looking ahead. We know what can happen if we're not ready to play. It's not going to happen again."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

On a rampage

Since the team's 31-30 loss to Ole Miss, Florida has won six consecutive games and has outscored its opponents 299-63:

Oct. 4 at Arkansas 38-7

Oct. 11 LSU 51-21

Oct. 25 Kentucky 63-5

Nov. 1 Georgia* 49-10

Nov. 8 at Vanderbilt 42-14

Nov. 15 S. Carolina 56-6

*At Jacksonville

Leadership has propelled the Gators to six straight wins 11/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 8:20pm]

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