GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There were no stopwatches or painted lanes or fancy running shoes.
It was just Jeff Demps and some of his neighborhood buddies out in the street or in the yard doing what kids do. Running around, chasing each other.
At some point they started holding impromptu races. I’m faster than you. No, I’m faster than you. No you’re not. Yes I am.
Pretty soon, there was no debate when Demps was one of those running.
“I was the kid winning all the races,’’ he said. “That’s kind of when I knew I was fast.’’
Demps eventually started playing football, showcasing his speed for the first time in a competitive athletic environment. Not that he really thought all that much about it.
Demps, who grew up in Winter Garden and later in nearby Lake County, had ulterior motives for wanting to play football when he was about 6 or 7.
“I started playing really just to get the uniform,’’ Demps said. “All my cousins played and they all had these nice uniforms, so that’s why I started. Come to find out I was fast and doing good things on the field, and it just turned into something I like to do.’’
The Gators are glad Demps ran to them after he finished his prep career at South Lake High.
Demps has played in 48 games the past four seasons and enters Saturday’s game against Furman with 2,428 career rushing yards, including 527 this season. Demps moved past John L. Williams into eighth-place on the school’s all-time career rushing list last week at South Carolina and is within striking distance of seventh place behind Tony Green (2,590).
But his status at UF has been accentuated by a special moniker: The Fastest Player in College Football.
“When he puts his foot in the ground and accelerates, he has that track explosion,’’ Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. “There aren’t that many people that have explosion like that. Once he plants his foot in the ground, he can explode.”
If he has a T-shirt or hat with “The Fastest Player in College Football” printed out in big letters, Demps doesn’t wear it. Still, he hears the phrase around campus and even on the field.
He tries to laugh along the best he can, unless it’s during a game.
“People see you around and say, ‘Hey, it’s the fastest man in college football and all that stuff,’ ” Demps said. “You’ve got these other fast players and when we’re on the field they are trash talking about how they are faster than you. It’s been kind of fun.’’
The title didn’t land at Demps’ feet accidentally. Like in those races in the street as a kid, Demps earned the title by winning. He is the two-time NCAA Indoor 60-meter champion and also won the 100-meter Outdoor title in 2010 with a wind-aided time of 9.96 seconds, the fastest time ever by a Gator.
He is the only student-athlete in school history to earn national titles in multiple sports, winning a football title in 2008 and back-to-back NCAA Indoor Track championships in 2010 and 2011. After winning the 2010 60-meter title in 6.57 seconds, Demps lowered his school-record time to 6.53 seconds in March, the fastest 60-meter time in America by an amateur athlete in nearly three years.
There were rumors over the summer that Demps, who competed with the U.S. National Team in Italy in July, was going to skip his senior season in football to concentrate on track. Demps considered it, but in the end said his desire to be part of the Gators’ football team one more time was too great to resist.
His final season is down to two regular-season games and a likely bowl game. While the Gators haven’t experienced the success of Demps’ first two seasons – Florida was 26-2 in 2008 and ’09 – Demps remains upbeat about his time at UF.
“It’s been frustrating with all the injuries, but I am just trying to cherish every moment as my career winds down,” said Demps, who was hampered by a foot injury as a junior and missed the Auburn game this season due to an injury. “This only happens once in a lifetime.’’
What doesn’t happen very often is an athlete of Demps’ caliber stepping onto campus. While considered small by football standards – Demps is listed at 5-7, 191 pounds – he usually drops about 10 pounds after football season to run track.
His track plans remain uncertain with the college season coming up and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on the horizon.
For now, Demps is keeping his focus on football and helping the Gators end his final season on a positive note. Demps has three 100-yard games this season, including a career-high 158 yards in Florida’s win over Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
He also returned a kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown against Georgia, going untouched in a raw display of his speed in a helmet and shoulder pads.
“When I get into the open field, I really don’t think about anybody catching me,’’ he said. “Sometimes when I know I’m just out there by myself, I try to run fast and just show the crowd how fast I can really run.’’
Former Gators coach Urban Meyer recruited Demps and kept regular tabs on him through South Lake guidance counselor Teri Batts. She stressed all the intangibles Demps offered the Gators, helping convince Meyer to give him a scholarship.
“Every time Coach Meyer would call he would ask about my guidance counselor,’’ Demps said. “I thought it was weird because they usually call just to check up on you. Nobody had ever asked about the guidance counselor. She would always come check on me and make sure I was going to all my classes and doing all my work.’’
Meyer didn’t need any help seeing the rest.
“Jeff Demps is one of those guys who goes 40 yards every time he touches the ball,'' Meyer said last season.
First-year Florida coach Will Muschamp sees Demps in the same light.
“He’s a constant home-run threat,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that can get on the perimeter – you better be depth sound, you better be in the right spot, you better take the right angles because he’ll outrun a lot of folks. There aren’t many guys in the country that are going to catch him.
“Jeff is a guy who every time he has been healthy for us has been very productive. He is a great teammate. He carries a (high) grade-point average and is a ‘yes sir, no sir’ kind of guy. He is what being a student-athlete is all about.”
As fast as Demps is, he knows he can get faster, especially after watching premiere sprinters Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay in person over the summer.
“I was just fascinated with watching those guys run and seeing how fast they can run and how their turnover is so much faster than everybody else’s,’’ he said.
Bolt and Gay don’t play college football, though. So for at least a few more games he’ll retain his special title.