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Honors for a first-time starter

Fully clothed and with his hair neatly combed, Monty Grow pulled a stool beneath him and had a seat in front of his cubicle in the University of Florida football locker room. The former Citrus High star had seen reporters quiz Gators quarterback Shane Matthews on the 283 passing yards and three touchdowns he had thrown in UF's 59-0 homecoming victory over Akron earlier Saturday.

Grow watched as the sports writers gathered around tailback Willie McClendon to hear about his touchdown catch and 105 rushing yards.

Even though Grow had long ago showered and prepared to leave the room, the free safety wasn't about to go anywhere too soon.

At least not until he had waited around long enough to completely savor his first opportunity to shine as a Gator.

After all, you only debut in UF's starting lineup once. And you don't always get a game ball for your efforts.

"It got me a little more pumped up," Grow said, "because it was really exciting to know I was going to be making my first start for the University of Florida. It's always been my dream to start here."

Grow (6 feet 3, 208 pounds) made the Class 3A all-state defensive first team after his senior season at Citrus. He also played quarterback for the Hurricanes, throwing for more than 1,300 yards in 1988.

One of just four true freshman to letter for the Gators last year, Grow was in on four tackles during his first college game, against Louisiana Tech.

Over the course of the season, Grow appeared in nine games and saw 93 plays, but it was always in a reserve role.

Grow recorded a total of just three solo tackles last season, one fewer than against Akron on Saturday.

"If it was my first start against a high-caliber team like Tennessee (which beat Florida 45-3 last week) or Auburn (whom the Gators play host to on Nov.3), I might have been a little bit more nervous," Grow said. "But even with these teams like Akron you have to be careful, because you never know what they can do."

Akron did little against the Gators, though, managing just 28 yards passing and 56 yards rushing.

"They weren't really much of a passing team," said Grow, who before this season won the right to back up first-string free safety Will White.

White, a redshirt sophomore from '87 Class 4A state-champion Tallahassee Godby High, started in 13 consecutive games prior to Saturday. He intercepted six passes in the Gators' first six games, one shy of a UF record.

But Grow has seen plenty of action, getting in on at least 30 plays in all of UF's games this year. He had 19 tackles, 11 unassisted, and two deflected pass attempts prior to Saturday.

Grow received word his reserve status would be upgraded to active starter on Thursday afternoon. The move was prompted by White's one-game suspension for violation of unspecified team rules.

"I didn't really put any extra pressure on myself," Grow said. "I just wanted to play my game, whether it was starting or playing backup or whatever. I just went about my way."

Grow made his presence immediately known Saturday by stopping Akron quarterback Jeff Sweitzer for a 2-yard gain during the Zips' first offensive series.

"Monty had some big hits early," Gators coach Steve Spurrier said, explaining why Grow had been chosen to receive a game ball.

Grow gladly accepted the gesture from his coaches and teammates.

"It was exciting," he said, "especially with it being my first start."