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Johnson named '99 starter

Doug Johnson needs crutches to walk, but he's still in good standing as Florida's starting quarterback.

Johnson, a junior, broke his left leg Saturday in No. 7 Florida's 31-10 victory over No. 18 Syracuse in the Orange Bowl. Yet on Sunday, coach Steve Spurrier gave Johnson the nod for 1999 ahead of sophomore Jesse Palmer.

"Doug is first in line to be our quarterback next year," Spurrier said. "He played very well the last half of the season."

Johnson took over the starting job when Palmer broke his collarbone in mid-October. Johnson finished the regular season with 2,346 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Against Syracuse, he completed his first six passes for 139 yards _ including touchdowns of 51 and 26 yards to Travis Taylor _ as the Gators took a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

Johnson was injured at the end of an 18-yard completion to the Syracuse 7 late in the second quarter. The hit by lineman Marc Pilon was clean, but Johnson's leg got twisted and cracked under his weight.

Johnson finished 12-for-17 for 195 yards.

"It's not a bad injury," said Johnson, who will have a plate surgically inserted as early as today to aid the healing. "If there was one bone to break, the doctor said this is the one to break."

Rehabilitation will take two to three months. Johnson hopes to be ready for Florida's spring drills in mid-March. To his benefit, the Orange and Blue game is April 10, a week later than usual.

But Johnson's status as Florida's No. 1 quarterback does not depend solely on his health. Sometime this month, he plans to decide whether he will give up his summer baseball job with the Devil Rays to work out with Florida's receivers in Gainesville.

Johnson, a third baseman, played in the Rays' minor-league system during the summers of 1996 and '97, but he did not play baseball or football last summer because of rotator cuff surgery.

Baseball America rated Johnson the team's 10th-best prospect before the surgery.

"We don't know how all of this is going to play out," Spurrier said. "It helps a quarterback to be a team leader if he's with them working out.

"Doug's got one year left of college football. If baseball's his best sport, he's got the rest of his life to do that. He's only got one more year to see if football's his best sport."

Spurrier chose Palmer, who started the first six games, over Johnson to be the full-time quarterback in mid-October. Johnson took over when Palmer was injured against LSU on Oct. 10.

Playing for the first time since, Palmer completed 10-of-14 for 113 yards and one touchdown in relief of Johnson in the Orange Bowl. Palmer also scored on a 2-yard run that gave Florida a 28-3 halftime lead over the Orangemen.

"Jesse will get himself ready," Spurrier said. "I don't know how it will turn out. As it turned out, we needed both of them this year."

While the quarterback battle likely will take center stage this spring, there is unfinished business for the Gators to attend to first.

Spurrier expects to fill two vacancies on his coaching staff within the week to be at full strength for the recruiting period leading up to February's national signing day. The Gators need to replace defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, who took the head job at Oklahoma in November, and assistant Steve Spurrier Jr., who will join Stoops as receivers coach at Oklahoma.

"He can be his own person out there," Spurrier said of his son, who played for him at Duke and was a member of his Florida staff for five seasons.

In the search for a coordinator, the Gators' defensive effort against Syracuse likely aided the cause of internal candidate Bob Sanders, a longtime Spurrier assistant who called plays in the Orange Bowl. Florida limited the Orangemen to a field goal until quarterback Donovan McNabb hit Maurice Jackson on a 62-yard scoring pass with 3:33 to play.

The coaching staff is not all that needs rebuilding. Florida's defense, which ranked ninth in the nation, started six seniors. Two juniors _ linebacker Jevon Kearse and tackle Reggie McGrew _ are considering declaring themselves eligible for the NFL draft.

"We need to sign some defensive players," said Spurrier, who visited the homes of four recruits Sunday afternoon. "We played a bunch of seniors (Saturday) night.

"We were happy to win the game. It makes the off-seasonnicer. It makes recruiting a lot nicer to win your last game because that's the one people talk about, the one they just saw."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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