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Gators CB Lamar’s Gamble Pays Off Big

September 11, 2003

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ When high school was winding down, Johnny Lamar got the message. Schools like Illinois State and Troy State were offering him scholarships, and that was about it.

Lamar always thought he could do better, though.

It turns out he has.

The one-time walk-on is now a starting cornerback at No. 19 Florida, a solid piece of proof that, as coach Ron Zook said, ``the recruiting process can be an inexact science.″

``I always wanted to go to a Division I school,″ said Lamar, a fifth-year senior who will make his third career start Saturday against Florida A&M. ``I just figured I’d come up here and give it a chance. I knew I’d probably sit out a couple years. I knew I had the talent to play. I just wanted to show the coaches, and my chance came this year.″

Not enough speed, not enough height, not enough strength _ there are always reasons why 5-foot-10, 180-pound guys like Lamar get overlooked in high school, especially in South Florida, where there’s always a dense trove of talented players. Adding to his disadvantage was an injury that kept him off the field at the end of his junior year, a key time for recruiters to identify top players for the upcoming class.

His coach at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Ken Scott, had previously coached a bunch of big-time college players, including a few who made the NFL _ including Isaac Bruce and Frank Sanders. Scott knew talent, and he never discouraged Lamar from aiming high.

``If I had a player I really didn’t think had ability, I’d sit down and talk with him,″ Scott said. ``But Johnny wasn’t one of those kids. He’s an excellent ballplayer. When things didn’t happen for him, I thought, ‘What else can I do? Who else can I call?’ I knew he was a good football player, and he wasn’t getting the attention he deserved.″

Not wanting to leave the state for a scholarship at a smaller school, Lamar asked Steve Spurrier if he could walk on. Spurrier said ‘OK,’ and Lamar took his place among the kickers, punters, scout teamers and the rest of the nonscholarship players, and began the long climb against great odds to get noticed.

``You have to do things 110 percent more than the other guys,″ he said. ``Being on the scout team, you just have to show you can make plays.″

When Spurrier was there, Lamar saw infrequent action on kickoff coverage teams and a play here and there on defense during the end of lopsided games.

Frustrating? Sure. But his chance came when Zook was hired and brought defensive backs coach Mark Woodford with him from the New Orleans Saints.

Zook overcame the odds and won a starting job at defensive back after coming to Miami-Ohio as a walk-on. Woodford did the same thing at Arizona.

``I was encouraged by that, because he knew what I was going through,″ Lamar said, referring to Woodford. ``He stressed to me that the best man would play, and I believed that.″

The first sign things were turning his way came during last offseason, when Zook put Lamar on scholarship. Lamar’s performance during spring practice and two-a-days earned him a starting spot.

Cynics said Lamar might have won the job because of a lack of depth or talent. The Gators’ 38-33 loss to No. 2 Miami last week debunked that argument, however, and so did Lamar’s performance.

He finished with six tackles, good coverage and, most impressively, an interception that set up a touchdown.

``He’s a player,″ Scott said. ``He understands what they’re doing there very well.″