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UF's Tebow finds a friend in his defense

GAINESVILLE — This is no way to win another Heisman Trophy.

Not with the defense making all of this noise. Not with a bunch of snot-nosed running backs scampering all over the field. And not with your butt on the bench when the goal line is in sight.

On the other hand, this could be the way to win a national title.

Yes, it's only August and the Dawg days of November are still ahead. But one game into the schedule, the University of Florida already looks like a different outfit than the one we recall from 2007.

That Gator team lived — and eventually died — on the talents of Tim Tebow. The Heisman Trophy winner passed, ran and willed UF to more victories than it probably deserved.

And there will be games this season when the Gators ask Tebow to do it again. But if Saturday afternoon was any indication, the UF quarterback will not have to carry the same kind of burden in '08.

This team has more weapons, fewer holes and better health insurance for Tebow. In a 56-10 win against Hawaii, Tebow threw for a career-low 137 yards as a starting quarterback. He rushed for only 37 yards.

And the quarterback who set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns was bypassed whenever the Gators got near the end zone, handing off to a stacked backfield once and giving way to backup Cam Newton another time.

"That's all to take the wear and tear off Tim, and not lean on him so much," coach Urban Meyer said. "But we all know at the end of the day No. 15 will carry the mail for us in critical situations."

Ah, but isn't it nice to have Fed Ex and United Parcel as options, too?

For three years, Meyer has worn a look of annoyance while searching for a running back he could put his trust in. Even with one of the better offenses in the nation in '07, the Gators did not have a traditional running game. Tebow had twice as many carries as any running back, and receiver Percy Harvin was the team's second-leading rusher.

So imagine the shock of seeing Jeff Demps — who ran the fastest 100-meter dash by any American high schooler in history at the Olympic trials in June — bounce outside and go 62 yards for a touchdown on the second carry of his career. And imagine the thrill of seeing redshirt freshman Chris Rainey make a cutback move and go 33 yards for a touchdown on the fourth carry of his career.

Both were longer than any carries by a UF running back in '07.

"You go to sleep at night and dream of ways to handle the ball and be creative," Meyer said. "We have four tailbacks who are premium people."

As invisible as the tailbacks were last season, the defense was even worse. At least Tebow could make up for the offensive deficiencies, but there was no hiding the lack of pass rush or the inexperienced secondary. Beginning in October 2007, the Gators gave up nearly 30 points per game.

This new defense is not much older — UF has seven sophomores and no seniors in the starting lineup — but there seems to be more playmakers. Even without injured linebacker Brandon Spikes, the Gators shut down Hawaii's unorthodox passing attack until the final minutes.

"Our communication is better, our chemistry is better, I feel like we're getting back to that old Gator defense," said free safety Major Wright, who returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown. "That's what our whole offseason was about. We knew we had to do something to make people forget about the way we played last year."

Still, there are reasons to be cautious. As much noise as Hawaii made with an undefeated regular season in 2007, this was not a particularly difficult test. And Florida's problem with silly penalties has not gone away.

Tebow had less time in the pocket than you would have expected considering the strength of Florida's offensive line, and the UF secondary was not tested much with a downfield passing game.

But as first impressions go, this was about as good as could be expected. Of all the things Florida asked of Tebow last season, this was something very new.

On this Saturday, they asked him to watch.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

UF's Tebow finds a friend in his defense 08/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 10:16am]

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