Quarterback Plamer knows he's on spot at Florida

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Experience counts for something at Florida, although not much. With experience, Steve Spurrier's quarterbacks learn you don't have to make many mistakes to end up holding a clipboard.

This is the unenviable position Jesse James Palmer finds himself in. If he doesn't go out with guns blazing, he might be robbed of his last chance to lead the Gators.

"This is a big opportunity, my senior year, and I'm ready to take advantage of it," Palmer said. "I just feel like I'm the best player, I'm the best quarterback for this team, I'm the best player to lead this team. I've been here for three years. I'm experienced. But ultimately it comes down to what Coach believes."

Spurrier wooed Palmer from Canada in 1997, beating out 40 other interested schools, but he isn't acting like much of a believer anymore. At the team's Media Day earlier this month, Spurrier threw out some unprompted criticism, alerting everyone that Palmer is on a short leash.

"We do not return a lot of players who've done a lot at quarterback," Spurrier said. "It's pretty open there, although Jesse will have the first opportunity."

You'd think this would be a no-brainer. Palmer, who turns 22 in October, is the only quarterback on the Gator roster who has thrown a pass that's counted, the only one who has started a game. After surviving what he called a three-year "cold war" with Doug Johnson, after winning the starting job in 1998 only to break his clavicle in the sixth game, after enduring another year of musical quarterbacks in 1999, Palmer thought this would be his year.

"I think coach wants there to be one guy as the starter, and I think I'm the guy," Palmer said.

But Spurrier seems enamored with the fresh talent surrounding Palmer, especially Brock Berlin, the true freshman from Louisiana with the perfect quarterback name and all-American birthday (July 4, 1981).

Berlin came to Florida in the spring, brimming with talent and accolades (USA Today National Offensive Player of the Year, Gatorade National Player of the Year). Spurrier also has a promising redshirt freshman, Rex Grossman of Bloomington, Ind.

"We'll see how they come around," Spurrier said. "Jesse Palmer again is our first quarterback, but if the other guys look like they're better players they'll step right in."

The omens haven't been good for Palmer.

He was supposed to be on the cover of a regional edition of Street & Smith's College Football Preview. But the magazine had a mix-up and used a photograph of the last guy to wear No. 7 at Florida, Danny Wuerffel, who won the 1996 Heisman Trophy and led the Gators to their first national championship that year.

Palmer shrugged his shoulders. "Mistakes happen," he said.

He just better hope not too many.

Hockey put on ice

Palmer grew up in Nepean, Ontario, an Ottawa suburb whose most famous product is NHL star Steve Yzerman. But hockey wasn't for Palmer.

"I couldn't skate worth a lick," Palmer said.

He grew up playing baseball and basketball, but it was only natural that he turned to football. His father, Bill, played linebacker for nine years in the Canadian Football League, after attending Bowling Green.

Palmer started playing when he was 9 and soon got involved with an organized league, coached by his father.

"The best place to learn the game is playing quarter-back," Bill Palmer said. "And he was always surrounded by ex-football players."

Palmer didn't play high school football, opting to play for a club program, Myers Riders, that went 33-0-1 over four years. Bill Palmer coached that team, too.

As a teenager, Jesse spent summers at Jim Kelly's Quarterback Camp and football camps at Penn State and Michigan. Bill once managed to get tickets to a Penn State game for a group of his players.

"We're in the stadium with 100,000 people, and Jesse just sat there with his jaw open," Bill said. "He knew this is what he wanted to do."

Bill sent tapes of Jesse's games to recruiting experts, who ranked him among the top quarterback prospects, and nearly every top school came calling. Jesse decided on Florida because of Spurrier's reputation, which had been sealed that year when he guided the Gators to their first national championship and Wuerffel to the Heisman Trophy.

"There were big shoes to fill," Palmer said. "Doug (Johnson) had Danny's ghost ahead of him. I don't feel like I have anybody's ghost in front of me."

Palmer wasn't deterred by the fact that Spurrier already had Johnson. "He's a very competitive kid," Bill Palmer said. "He thrives on competition."