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Last chance to change pro minds

You would be hard pressed to find anyone around Syracuse, N.Y., who believes Donovan McNabb could be the less-than-ideal anything.

In his four years as starting quarterback for the Orangemen, not only has he won the hearts of the locals with his gentle manner and constant smile, McNabb has simply won.

Yet, because he has been so successful as an option quarterback _ first in high school, then at Syracuse _ McNabb still is fighting the stereotype that he is not a drop-back passer, that he doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

Such assumptions aggravate the generally unflappable McNabb, whose priority has been running the Orangemen's system and not showing off his arm.

Winning has been the fifth-year senior's goal, just as it will be Saturday when he leads No. 18 Syracuse against No. 7 Florida in the Orange Bowl. Yet it's also McNabb's last game to showcase his abilities for those who aren't believers.

McNabb shouldn't have to, Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said.

"He's got a very strong arm and I don't think it's underrated," Pasqualoni said. "I think all you need to do is watch some of the film or watch him play to see that he's very mobile. But at the same time when it comes to throwing the football, he certainly can do that. He doesn't have to run to throw it, he certainly can (just) throw it."

Florida coach Steve Spurrier doesn't need convincing.

"Donovan McNabb, I think, will be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft," Spurrier said. "That's just a guess on my part; there's no facts behind it. He's the type of guy who's hard to sack. He can shake a guy, run with it and he's an excellent passer. He can make all the throws, short and deep. So we're going to have our hands full."

Perhaps the best description of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound McNabb came after he completed 22 of 28 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Tennessee, now ranked No. 1 and in the Fiesta Bowl: "He's in a category of his own," Vols linebacker Al Wilson said afterward.

McNabb's versatility in that game was evident. Twice he scrambled from the pocket to make big plays: first breaking a tackle to score on a 6-yard run, then bouncing off Wilson, rolling out and finding Darryl Daniel for a 46-yard pass.

He orchestrated more heroics against Virginia Tech last month, a game Syracuse had to win to stay in contention for the Big East title. On fourth and 7 on the game's final drive, McNabb took off for a 41-yard run.

Exhausted from the effort, McNabb vomited on tight end Stephen Brominski's shoes, looked up and laughed, then connected with Brominski on a 13-yard touchdown to win 28-26.

"(Quarterbacks like me) still want to be recognized as quarterbacks," McNabb said. "We still feel like we're pocket passers as well, just quarterbacks that do a little bit more, so we can continue to move the chains downfield.

"You want a quarterback that's capable of moving around out there, buying a little more time for a receiver. If I was a recruiter, I would look for someone who is athletic, someone who has knowledge of the game."

McNabb would bring all of those abilities to the NFL. The biggest concern for scouts, however, was whether he could be patient enough to sit in the pocket and find an open receiver before taking off.

Pasqualoni said McNabb has become far more patient and his mechanics are improving. The bottom line, Pasqualoni said, is that McNabb's athletic ability, his arm strength and his sheer will to win cannot be questioned. The rest will come.

Some draft analysts, including Mel Kiper Jr., say McNabb could go in the first round behind or between quarterbacks Tim Couch of Kentucky _ assuming he leaves a year early _ and Daunte Culpepper of Central Florida.

"It's going to depend on how he does in the Orange Bowl, how he does in the Senior Bowl, how he does in the combines," Pasqualoni said. "Any Division I player looking to be drafted has got a long way to go between now and the draft."

Showing off his NFL-ready abilities, though, won't be McNabb's priority Saturday. He is thinking of more than himself.

"I just want to play the best game of my career," McNabb said. "I really want to play the type of game where some of the underclassmen can feed off this game going into next year.

"What we need to do is play our style of football, whether it's running the ball or possibly passing the ball. Maybe some option, maybe some play-action passing."

_ Staff writer Joanne Korth and other news organizations contributed to this report.

AT A GLANCE

LINE: Florida by 7.

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