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Ratliff picks off challenge, takes it out on opponents

Keiwan Ratliff was practicing punt returns one day when Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong pulled him aside and initiated a conversation that ultimately changed the course of his career.

The Gators were 3-3 and coming off back-to-back home Southeastern Conference losses for the first time since 1988. Ratliff, a preseason All-SEC pick at cornerback, had one interception and hadn't made an impact on a game all season.

Strong wanted to know one thing: Was Ratliff for real or just hype?

"He told me he expected a playmaker out of me," Ratliff said. "He said, "When I came in I heard all this about you being a playmaker, and we need you to go out and make plays and give the offense a chance.' That's one of those things when a coach challenges you to put fear in an offense's game plan throughout the week, then you want to go out and not let that coach down. He expected me to go out and to make other quarterbacks afraid to throw the ball to one side of the field."

Mission accomplished.

Over the past three games, Ratliff has six interceptions _ one of the major reasons the Gators defeated three ranked opponents in four weeks. He leads the SEC and is ranked fourth nationally in interceptions.

"I haven't seen anything like it except on video games," teammate Kenny Parker said. "It's a beautiful thing. I'm very happy for what he's doing. We get to the point where we expect him to get at least one, maybe two a game. If he doesn't, we'll be disappointed."

Ratliff was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award on Wednesday, given to the nation's top defensive back. He is one shy of the school record for interceptions in a season (currently tied with Will White, John Clifford and Randy Talbot).

"(The record) would mean a lot to me," he said. "As far as a player, you always want to strive to break records and set your own mark, but if I don't break the record and we win these next three games and go on and win the rest of our games this year, I'll be just as happy as if I got an interception."

Early in the season, it looked as if Ratliff's final year might not be as spectacular as anticipated. He had three career interceptions at the end of last season, but many expected him to emerge as a serious defensive threat.

But with inexperienced senior Johnny Lamar on the opposite side at corner, opponents went away from Ratliff. When Lamar began to play well, teams came back Ratliff's way.

"Early on in the season I wasn't seeing many balls come my way and I didn't have a chance to make big plays," the 22-year-old Columbus, Ohio, native said. "Sometimes I would get lazy, I was lackadaisical in my technique and things because I wouldn't see balls for a quarter and a half or two quarters. Now I'm having the opportunity to go out and make plays for my team."

Ratliff's recent success can be broken down into four key areas: intensive film study, his ability to disguise himself in defensive schemes, experience at wide receiver and an uncanny ability to read a quarterback's eyes.

After Strong challenged him, Ratliff realized he needed to dedicate more time to the off-field aspect of the game. He spends at least an extra hour daily watching film. He has learned to key on a quarterback's tendencies. With more knowledge, he has mastered the art of disguise.

"Keiwan does a good job in our coverages, hiding behind the receiver," said Strong, in his first season with the Gators. "The quarterback never sees him because he's actually standing directly behind someone. So when they throw the ball, that's how he's able to jump and get a lot of interceptions. He's able to read the quarterback's eyes very well."

Last spring, UF experimented by moving Ratliff to receiver. He hasn't played the position this season but that experience has given him new insight as a corner.

"I had the opportunity to see what the offenses are scheming on defenses and different coverages, and I got a chance to see what wide receivers are thinking," he said. "I got a chance to see what quarterbacks are looking for in your zones and looking for in their presnap reads and things like that, and it helped me become a better corner, a better cover guy and a better disguise corner."

Ratliff admits that if Strong hadn't challenged him, he still might have just one interception.

"I'm way more attacking now," he said. "Before, I was more laid back and trying to wait for the plays to come to me. Now I'm trying to be more aggressive and trying to make plays happen."