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Pupil now the leader

For three seasons, Florida assistant coach Bob Sanders sat high above the playing field on game day, connected to Bob Stoops' brain waves through a headset wire.

Sanders input the data.

Stoops called the play.

Sanders marveled.

"He is one of those guys that has a knack for making the right call at the right time," Sanders said. "A lot of times I would say, "Man, that was a great call.' He's one of the top defensive minds around. And hopefully, we learned from those experiences."

Tonight, Sanders must complete the circuit on his own. With Stoops' departure to become coach at Oklahoma, Sanders will serve as interim defensive coordinator for No. 7 Florida against No. 18 Syracuse in the Orange Bowl.

"This will give Bob Sanders and the other coaches a chance to inject some ideas of their own," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose role as offensive mastermind leaves the defense entirely to his assistants. "We're looking forward to it. Coach Sanders is looking forward to it. We'll see what happens."

Stoops' arrival in 1996 gave the Gators an attacking style of defense to match Spurrier's aggressive Fun "n" Gun offense. Florida won its first national championship in Stoops' first season, and what had been a weak link became under Stoops a unit ranked consistently among the top 10 nationally in total defense.

This season, Florida ranked ninth in total defense (286.6 yards per game), fourth in run defense (90.7 yards), seventh in pass efficiency defense (100.45 rating) and eighth in scoring defense (14.1 points). The loss of Stoops makes Florida's players even more determined against the Orangemen.

"It makes us as players work a little harder knowing we have a different coach making the calls," junior linebacker Jevon Kearse said. "Even though he's using the same calls Stoops used, we're going to have to communicate better among each other."

Sanders' first crack at signal calling comes against a multi-faceted attack led by dynamic senior quarterback Donovan McNabb. Even Spurrier, who rarely looks at an opponent's offense on tape, is impressed.

"Donovan can avoid people," Spurrier said. "He's a tremendous passer, too. He can throw it where you can catch it and he can avoid people. So it's going to be a big challenge for us to just try to keep him in the pocket and cover some guys and try to slow down their offense."

Sanders relishes the opportunity.

"I don't feel any pressure because this is why you coach _ to get in the big game against a quality opponent with guys you love to be around," said Sanders, who will stay in the press box and send in signals through assistant Jim Collins on the sideline. "If you're a competitor, you like the challenge."

Spurrier doesn't seem too worried. Asked how being the coordinator would change things for Sanders, Spurrier replied: "He gets to wear a shirt like mine."

Sanders, 45, was among the coaches Spurrier retained when he took over at Duke in 1987, and has been with Spurrier since _ a tenure of 12 seasons. He is among a wide-open field of candidates to replace Stoops, but does not consider the Orange Bowl a tryout.

"I've been with Coach Spurrier for a long time and he knows how I coach," said Sanders, who helped call plays at Duke using a scheme similar to what the Gators play now. "I don't feel like I have to go on trial for Coach Spurrier."

The players like Sanders.

"He is kind of soft spoken off the field, but he's very intense on the practice field," sophomore tackle Derrick Chambers said. "He's about business when he's out there."

But with a gentle touch.

"He gives us a lot of positive reinforcement," senior cornerback Tony George said.

Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni is not encouraged by the sudden transition in Florida's coaching staff, which also lost assistant offensive coordinator Carl Franks to the head job at Duke the same week Stoops went to Oklahoma.

"They know what the defensive schemes are," Pasqualoni said. "I think that we're at somewhat of a disadvantage because you don't know what new wrinkles might be used in this game."

George said: "It's not a tough adjustment. It makes it more fun and more of a challenge. You count on yourself in moments like these to see what you know as a player and what you can do as a leader."

Bob Sanders

BORN: Dec. 5, 1953.

HOMETOWN: Jacksonville, N.C.

EDUCATION: 1976 B.S. in political science from Davidson College; 1972 Jacksonville High School.

FAMILY: Wife Kathie, children Lindsay, 19; Sarah, 18; Robby, 7.

CAREER: Three-year letterman at Davidson (1972-76). Began his coaching career as defensive coordinator at Southwest Onslow High School in Jacksonville, N.C., from 1976-78. An assistant coach at Georgia Tech, East Carolina and Richmond before moving to Duke in 1985; followed Steve Spurrier to Florida in 1990. Bowl coaching experience in Peach (1978), All-American (1989), Sugar (1992, '94, '95, '97), Gator ('92), Fiesta ('96) and Citrus (1998). Has coached on six conference championship teams (Duke, '89; Florida, '91, '93, '94, '95 and '96).