TAMPA — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen warns even his fastest players that because of the overall speed in the SEC and NFL, "everyone gets caught."
A rare breakaway exception, the former Gator assistant coach says, is Jeff Demps, who played running back at Florida, won a relay silver medal at last year's Olympics and joined the Bucs active roster Monday.
"He was a home run hitter. He didn't get caught," Mullen said. "If you got him through the line of scrimmage with the ball in his hands, it was, 'See you later.' "
Ask Bucs coach Greg Schiano the last time he coached a player with Demps' raw speed, and he goes back before his 11 seasons at Rutgers to his time as an assistant at the University of Miami.
"Santana (Moss), when he was young, was really lightning," Schiano said. "But I don't think even he was as fast as Jeff. Jeff's a fast guy."
Demps, 23, has run the 100 meters as fast as 9.96 seconds. Right after the Olympics last year, he signed with the Patriots. But within two weeks, he sprained a knee ligament, ending his season and taking him out of action for six months.
His arrival with the Bucs — after a trade that also netted a seventh-round pick and sent running back LeGarrette Blount to New England — was delayed by international commitments to track. He said it was tempting, at times, to allow himself to move on and focus on track but football still has a hold on him.
"I'm a two-sport athlete," said Demps, a 5-foot-7, 191-pounder who ran for 23 touchdowns, caught one and returned a kickoff for one touchdown for the Gators from 2008-11.
"I grew up playing football. I fell in love with track, but I'm trying to make the most of both opportunities,"
Florida used Demps' world-class speed creatively. As a senior in 2011, he was one of two Division I-A players with a run, catch and kick return of 70 yards or more. The other, West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin, was taken eighth overall by the Rams in April.
The easy misconception, Mullen said, is to write off Demps as a track star in pads.
"It's the opposite," said Mullen, who recruited him out of Groveland South Lake High for the Gators. "He's a football guy who went out for track, and all of a sudden, he's in the Olympics.
"He always had that football mind-set. He knew football and learned how to run track. That's what you love; that football attitude, that demeanor to be physical with the ball in his hands. He'll run the ball between the tackles."
The Bucs could use a spark on offense and returns, and it's unknown how fast Demps can learn enough to be active on Sundays. Mullen said he's a dream for a coach looking for a defense that tries to match a linebacker — any linebacker — against a player with Demps' explosiveness.
"What made him electric was when you had opportunities to get him matched up on somebody one on one in the open field," he said. "He's just so fast. He gets you so back on your heels because of the speed. He separates in a hurry."