By: Mark Maloney
SEC Digital Network
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Last season at the University of Florida, Omar Craddock wasn't second fiddle among the Gators' horizontal jumpers.
He was third fiddle.
The Gators had a pair of about-to-be world champions ahead of him in the triple jump: Christian Taylor (the 2011 titlist outdoors) and Will Claye (indoors).
Taylor won four NCAA titles, Claye two.
Now that those two are on the pro circuit, Craddock is sitting in -- no, bounding over -- first chair for the Gators.
A junior from Killeen, Texas, Craddock picked up where Taylor and Claye left off by sweeping this year's Southeastern Conference and NCAA titles indoors.
"I just have a strong faith in God," Craddock said. "I'm just a fun guy."
Innocent fun, mind you.
For example, when joining teammates for a meal on a road trip, "I'll ask for some diet water. And I really sell it to her, like diet water's real."
What is real is Craddock's progress.
Seventh in the NCAA Championships as a freshman, his mark was 53 feet.
He moved up to fifth and 53-6 1/2 as a sophomore, then won this year at 54-11 1/2.
"He's a team-oriented buy who loves compete, and that sums up Omar in a nutshell," said Brian O'Neal, Gators jumps coach. "Knowing how much he cares about his teammates and cares about representing the University of Florida, that is Omar to a T. He loves being a Gator and he loves helping the Gators win."
Of course, the Gators did win their third consecutive NCAA team title indoors, with Craddock claiming UF's fourth consecutive title in the triple jump.
O'Neal says that Craddock, rather than shy from competition, learned well from Taylor and Claye.
Craddock also took care of academics -- he's a media major who sees himself as becoming an entrepreneur -- while steadily improving his strength and jumps.
"I was just learning from (Taylor and Claye), as well as them learning from me as a competitor," Craddock said. "That was just more fuel to get better."
While Taylor and Claye both have jumped beyond 57 feet, Craddock's best is not quite 55-0.
He thinks he can challenge his former teammates, though. He says he can improve psychologically and technically.
"I'm a real technical guy, so when it comes down to practicing, if I feel that (I'm off) on a phase, then I have to ... work more at leveling out that phase. I really keep it technical to make sure everything is precise and everything's right.
"Then, when it comes down to psychologically, I just have to have my mind right and stay focused, and keep the faith in God and (that) he's going to help me through everything."
He says he goes into each practice with the intent to improve in some way.
When technique and mind-set merge at the end of a runway, Craddock says his focus is on being strong, being fast and being aggressive.
"Omar is just beginning to reach what we call the tip of the iceberg," O'Neal said. "We're not there. ... That's the mantra that Coach Holloway (Mike, UF's head coach) instills in all of us here, is that we're never satisfied. We want to keep on being the best we can be and, once we've reached that level, we try to go even higher."
Craddock has filled the bill.
As a Texas high school champion in 2008, his personal best was 50-11 1/2.
His NCAA indoor title has only added motivation.
"You just have to keep a level head and stay humble," Craddock said. "It's a nice accolade to have -- 'I won the conference, I won the NCAA' -- but after that I can't sit and dwell upon that. ...
"OK, that was cool; it feels great. Now I just have to get back to work and win the outdoors and beyond. I transition everything, whether it's good or bad, into motivation. Now I'm motivated to get both of those titles outdoors."
Craddock and O'Neal make it clear that first on their checklist is the SEC Championships, then the NCAA Championships.
This being an Olympic year, though, one can't help but ponder what might happen this summer in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Certainly Craddock has the talent to be in the mix, chasing his former teammates.
Dare he dream that all three make the Olympic team?
"That (would) probably be the most amazing thing that's happened to me since birth," Craddock said. "We talk about that all the time -- me, Christian and Will will text back-and-forth and tweet one another.
"It'll be something nice just to have three Gators to be reunited, back together in London."
First things first, though, starting with SECs, which take place May 10-13 at Baton Rouge, La.