Friday, August 13, 2010

Meyer ready to see Gators in first scrimmage

On the eve of Florida's first full contact scrimmage, Urban Meyer likes what he sees of his team in terms of effort and enthusiasm but it won't be until he's seen the Gators in real game-like situations that he knows what kind of ball club he's got.

"I love the team so far," Meyer said Friday morning. "I like what's going on right now. I get to stand back and watch practice and I see a lot of effort. We're not very good right now but I like what's going on."

Meyer calls this upcoming season a year of accountability and development. He calls the 2009 season a "year of maintenance" since the Gators had almost the entire two deep roster on both sides of the ball returning. This year there will be plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball, so it's up to the coaching staff to bring out the best in the young players and get them ready to play football at the highest level in the toughest conference in the nation.

"This year we have to develop," Meyer said. "We didn't do a good job in '07. I'm not saying that as coaches we did a bad job, but we weren't prepared. We're prepared now. Now it's just how do you get those guys game ready? We better be on our game as far as coaches. Jelani Jenkins, when you take the first snap, is going to be out there somewhere and he's never played before so (linebackers coach D.J.) Durkin better have him ready to go."

The goal for Saturday's scrimmage will be to identify playmakers as well as solidify the starters on the offensive line. Defensively, the Gators have to get into a workable rotation on the line and figure out who the starters will be at linebacker.
"Offense is going to be playmakers and defense is going to be establishing a rotation up front," Meyer said. "I can't tell you who our starting linebackers are right now."
Meyer got good news Friday on the offensive side of the ball with the return to practice by slot receiver/tailback Chris Rainey, who missed a few practices due to a racing heartbeat. Rainey will participate in full contact drills either in Saturday's scrimmage or at the latest, Monday.

There was further good news when it comes to the offensive line. Matt Patchan, who suffered a hairline fracture of his wrist, got the cast off and will start running once again.  

* * *

When spring practice ended Meyer was extremely pleased with the way the new members of his coaching staff meshed together. Now that they've had the spring and summer to bond, he's seeing the results on the practice field. 

"I'm really impressed with what's going on with our staff," Meyer said. "It's a year of development and accountability and development is going on.  We've only got  a couple of weeks left to do it, though. That's the problem."

Meyer thinks this coaching staff could be the equal of the staff he put together from 2005-07. 
"We've had arguably as fine a staffs as there are in college history in '05,  '06, '07," Meyer said. "Those were terrific staffs. I'd put these guys so far in that category."

* * * 
Along with Alabama coach Nick Saban, Meyer has been one of the more vocal critics of rogue agents who are casting a rather dark shadow on college football. At SEC Media Days, Meyer called for accountability for all agents and punishment for those who cross the line and break the rules. A couple of weeks ago, Meyer participated in conference call that was designed to get to the heart of the problem that has been a plague this summer and he couldn't have been happier with the level of concern from all parties. 

"I loved the fact that you have everybody involved and everybody wanting to do right," Meyer said. "There were actually some agents on the phone, there was NFLPA on the phone,  there was the commissioner and some college football coaches. It was about as positive as you can get because everybody wants to do right."

Meyer said that most of the agents want to do the right thing but there is a problem with those who continue to break the rules by offering illegal inducements to players. Players who get caught taking money or benefits from agents before their eligibility is complete are punished by the NCAA, but presently there is no system in place to punish the rogue agents. That is the area where Meyer says something has to change.

"There are obviously a lot of people who don't want to do it right but the majority want to do it right," Meyer said. "You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure this thing out now. You want to stop some unethical, illegal activity. How do you do it? You punish them. The players get punished and you want to stop the other side too because one is going to be punished and deservedly so and the other side should get punished."
Meyer said there has to be the threat of punishment for offering illegal benefits and money to players or else the the agents will continue to do it. Meyer said there are also some things going on to clean up recruiting as well, moves that can only help college football.

"Recruiting ... there's some things going on too and then this agent relations so there are a lot of positives going on for college football," he said. "We can't lose college football. We just can't lose college football."

* * * 

Meyer was pleased that freshman Robert Clark was the first freshman to lose his stripe. All freshmen at Florida have a stripe on their practice helmet when practice begins. When they lose their stripe, it's a sign that they have become real Gators. 

Clark is a freshman from Palm Beach Dwyer who was early enrolled in the spring. Clark could crack into the rotation both at wide receiver and on special teams where he could see action on both punt and kickoff teams. Meyer loves the constant level of energy that Clark brings to every practice.

"He's the Energizer Bunny," Meyer said. "He goes as hard as he can. Wish he was a little taller, wish he was a little faster but he's tough as nails and making plays and he'll hit you. He's the first guy to get his stripe off. That was kind of cool to see that."

The other two freshmen who have had their stripes removed are linebackers Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball. Taylor has been particularly impressive. 
"He strikes you and he loves the game," Meyer said. "I'm hoping he's our Stamper. He doesn't look like the physical, imposing guy but he strikes you."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How much pain can one man endure? Antwine just won't quit

Brandon Antwine has this love affair with football. It must be love. Otherwise, why would he go through so much pain trying to play the game? In his five years at the University of Florida, he's had a mysterious back ailment that hospitalized him and had even the doctors at Shands thinking he might not walk again much less play football, a torn ACL and a torn up shoulder that required surgery. Pain? He could write a book about it. Rehab? Been there and done that so many times that he knows all the routines by heart. 

If he were to walk away from football today, who could blame him? Yet, giving up the game has never once entered the mind of this 300-pound nose tackle, a fifth-year senior from Garland, Texas.

"I never really thought about that," Antwine said Thursday. "I have a really strong family support system behind me. I never thought about giving up."

The back injury, he says, was the worst. That happened late in 2007, his redshirt freshman season. The medical term for the condition, he says, is too complicated to pronounce but in layman's terms, the muscles in his back were literally dying. Doctors and coaches alike wondered if he would walk again, but Antwine beat that and came back to play in 2008. Urban Meyer still says that it's a medical miracle.

Just when things started going well for Antwine in the 2008 season, he popped his ACL on the wet, slick Doak Campbell Stadium turf.

"It was the Florida State game, the last game of the season and my first start that year," Antwine said. "It was raining on the field really bad. My foot got planted and stuck in the ground. My body wanted to go another way and my knee stayed one way. I got hurt just like that."

Considering all he had gone through just to play football again, he didn't want to think that his season was over. He remembers sitting on the sideline after the injury thinking "I'm all right ... I'm all right" but he wasn't all right. 

"I wanted to get back out there but when they told me I had tore it up I was like, this should be easy," he said. "My back injury ... I feel like that was the hardest thing I ever went through in my life. I thought the knee was going to be easy."

So he had the surgery, did the rehab and pushed himself in the weight room to get back on the field in 2009.   He played in the first six games of the 2009 season before tearing up his shoulder. He missed the last five regular season games before seeing the field against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. 

Then came more surgery and more rehab. More pain, too. 

But it never occurred to him to give it up. He was willing to do whatever it takes to make it back for his senior season and there was no lack of support or encouragement from those who understand just how important football is to Antwine.

"The coaches, my family my teammates ... everyone around me was telling me you can get back to the game and do what you love to do," Antwine said. "I love doing it."

That he loves it so much inspires teammates and coaches alike.

"Most guys in the country and most guys that I have known would have done that [quit] and gotten the scholarship and the degree --- which he will do in December and not have to go through the pain and the heartache and frustration of trying to come back and trying to be a quality player," Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "I just love the kid. If he gets back on the field it's a huge plus and a bonus. He means so much to our team just being out there."

Considering all that he's been through, it's unlikely that Antwine could give the Gators 40-50 snaps per game at nose tackle but the good news is that he won't have to. The Gators have 16 scholarship defensive linemen so there's plenty of depth. McCarney wants to have six ends and six tackles ready to rotate in and out every game so Antwine will be able to pace himself.

Even with limited snaps, however, he knows there will be pain. How much can one man endure?

"I don't want to find out but I'm willing to," he said, later adding that he simply wakes up every day and "I thank God for another day."

One more day to do what he loves to do, even if it means more pain and possibly one more injury.

* * *

McCarney said the number one defensive line has Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens at the ends with Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter at the tackles. Howard, McCarney says, has a chance to have a special season. 

"He (Howard) is between 305 and 310 and he has to get in game condition but he's working well and he was one of the most improved guys in Mickey Marotti's [weight] room," McCarney said. "It appears right now that he has a chance to be one of the most improved guys on our defense."

McCarney said that freshmen Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Shariff Floyd are picking up the defense and starting to make some plays. 

TRASH TALKING: When Hunter lines up at nose tackle he knows he's going against the best center in the country in Mike Pouncey. He also knows he's in for a verbal assault that's not the kind of thing you'd repeat in polite company and with Pouncey, no topic or relative is off limits.

"When it comes to Mike, there's nothing off guard," Hunter said. "Everything is a go. I've heard about my mom, my dad, my brother ... everything."

Asked if he could repeat any of Pouncey's trash talk at the line of scrimmage, Hunter thought for a moment, then replied, "There's not a lot ... I can't think of anything actually."

Another of the trash talkers is senior defensive end Duke Lemmens, who Hunter says is "the funniest guy on the team."
Lemmens might make everyone laugh, but like Pouncey, what's said on the field needs to stay on the field.

"Funniest thing [Lemmens has said]?" Hunter asked rhetorically. "I can't repeat that."

DE-STRIPINGS: Three freshmen have lost the stripe on their helmet, the symbol that they're officially Gators. Wide receiver Robert Clark was the first followed by linebackers Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball. 

McCarney said he was proud of the three freshmen, adding that, "There have been guys who had theirs for three years in the past!"

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Highlights from Florida's Media Day

After a rather refreshing spring and summer in which he got took time away from football for the first time in his coaching career, Urban Meyer seems refreshed and enthused, ready to coach again. At Tuesday's Media Day, Meyer really didn't give away any trade secrets but he couldn't hide his enthusiasm to be back on the field coaching again. 

It's a new year with plenty of new challenges and the first time in four years that Meyer has had to coach without the benefit of Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, not to mention seven other players who were drafted by the NFL and several who signed free agent contracts with a pro team. 

For some teams, losses like that would represent a step backward but it's still Florida and it's still Urban Meyer pulling the strings for the Gators, which means the cupboard is far from bare.

"Other than '07 this has been one of the newest [teams] but I will tell you what, there is a lot of talent running around on that field," Meyer said Tuesday. "I think you will be excited to see what that Florida team looks like ... not now. They're awful right now but in a couple of weeks they will be pretty good."

* * * 

A good reason for the excitement is fourth-year junior quarterback Johnny Brantley, who just might have the best and most accurate arm of any quarterback in UF history. Brantley has paid his dues and waited his turn to take over the position he's been dreaming about playing at the University of Florida since he was six years old. Now that he's the starter and the team leader, Brantley said can look back on the last three years and realize the benefits of taking a redshirt season (2007) before a two-year apprenticeship behind Tim Tebow.

"When I look back I'm happy that I redshirted," Brantley said. "Taking that year and two more years helped me to mature and grow up and learn this game. I got to learn from one of the best quarterbacks that will ever play. When I look back I'm just happy sat back I'm happy that I took those years off I guess you'd say, or just sat back and watched the game of football."

Asked if he's ready to take over, Brantley sounded assured when he replied, "I believe so."

Quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler, whose pupils who play in the NFL include Tom Brady, Chad Henne and Brian Griese, couldn't agree more. 

"He's the starting quarterback of the Florida Gators," Loeffler said. "He understands that the responsibility of being confident and poised under pressure is really important around here. He's developing into it and he's right where we want him. He's ready to lead this team." 

* * * 

This is the deepest Florida roster in the Meyer era. While the Gators have enormous reservoirs of talent at most positions, Meyer says the Gators are close but still not in a perpetual reload mode. 

"A junior can leave for the pros and it sets you back a little bit bit but it's as close probably as you can get," Meyer said. "I'm pleased with where we are but you never really have enough." 

Meyer used the safety position as an example.

"We're thin right there," Meyer said, adding that if Major Wright (third round draft pick of the Chicago Bears) had stayed for his senior year, safety might be one position where the Gators are considered as deep and talented as there is in the country.

* * *
While twin brother Maurkice Pouncey left a year early for the NFL (first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers), Mike Pouncey elected to come back to switch from right guard to Maurkice's old center position. By staying the extra year, Mike's NFL draft status should soar (centers are usually drafted higher and make more money than guards) not only because of the position switch but because he has now become what Meyer calls the ultimate team leader. 

"There can't be a better leader than Mike Pouncey," Meyer said. 

"I'm a vocal leader," Pouncey said. e put me in this position to be a captain and leader of this team and I've been embracing it and taking it head on."

Mike has always been a leader on the field, but he says that now that he has the responsibility of being a senior as well as a team captain, he knows he has to be a leader by example off the field as well.

"Those young guys are always watching," he said. "When you're the leader, you've got to set the right example on the field and off the field. People follow the leader so it's a big responsibility to do the right thing."

* * *

Senior safety Ahmad Black admits he wasn't a very good practice player during his freshman season in 2007. Once he changed his attitude about practice, he became a starter (finished second nationally with eight interceptions in 2008; was the team's top tackler in the secondary in 2009) and has become one of the top safeties in the nation.

"I attack practice like a game," Black said. "Therefore, when it's time for the game, it's easier. We try to make the practices harder than the game and that makes the game easier.  Once I became a better practice player, things started slowing down for me a little bit more. I saw things that I didn't see before."  

Black credits Gator All-American linebacker Brandon Spikes with teaching him how to be a better leader. 

"Me and Spikes would be sitting around playing a video game and I would ask him, 'what do I have to do to get the guys to respect me? What do I need to do to get the guys to listen to me ... we'd just have a lot of small talk," Black said. 

* * *
Fourth-year junior wide receiver Deonte Thompson is expected to finally blossom and become Florida's go-to guy this year. When he came out of Belle Glade, Thompson was the fastest wide receiver in the nation (10.32 100 meters) and considered a can't miss prospect, but he admits it hasn't been an easy road. 

"I had a lot of growing up to do," Thompson said, crediting former Gator (now Oakland Raider) Louis Murphy with taking him under his wing and patiently helping him smooth out the rough spots.

"He's like my brother," Thompson said. "He's my man. We talk a lot. When I got here, it seemed we just clicked. Whenever I fell down he was right there for me. He had a lot of stories for me. He went through a lot, too. He didn't have an easy road either."

Just as Murphy exploded his fourth year at Florida, Thompson is expected to make all those long hours spent on hot summer days catching endless passes from Brantley pay off this year. Brantley and Thompson arrived on campus the same time and have spent so much time pitching and catching that Thompson says he can almost run routes blindfolded and still catch the pass because he and JB are in total synch with each other. 

They have spent so much time together that Thompson says they can communicate without using any words. 

"We can ... and we've got signals and stuff, too," Thompson said. 

FRESHMAN NOTES: Tailback Mack Brown says he's 203 pounds now but will probably play this year at around 200. His chronic hamstring problems have been solved, in part, because of a different diet. 

"I've eliminated the fried foods from my diet," Brown said. "I'm eating baked, broiled and grilled foods now and that's got a lot to do with it. I'm eating healthier and feeling a lot better."

Defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who hails from Staten Island, New York, says the toughest adjustments for him were getting used to the Florida heat and living somewhere that it isn't wall-to-wall people. 

"It took me about a month to get used to the heat and I'm still adjusting," Easley said. "I love it here but it's different ... like a small town compared to New York. It's a lot quieter and a lot more laid back."

Defensive end Ronald Powell, who was considered the number one high school player in the nation, said he went through a mini-football culture shock when he saw all the schemes he had to learn and then realized that every player on the Florida roster is extremely talented.

"That's definitely been a shock here," Powell said. "I have to adjust to everything. We have a lot of great players here. When you compete against great players that work hard every day, that's actually good and you're definitely going to be up for a challenge."

INJURIES: Slot receiver Chris Rainey had a procedure done to correct what Meyer called a "racing heartbeat." Apparently it sounds more serious than it is because Meyer expected Rainey to be ready to go by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. 

Asked about the seriousness of Rainey's heart problem, Meyer responded, "I asked the same question. It is an accelerated heartbeat. Our guys (doctors) do a very thorough job here so they took care of him and everything is fine."

Junior tackle Matt Patchan suffered a hairline fracture of his write, what Meyer called a "10-day to two-week injury." Patchan, who sat out spring practice while rehabbing his knee (ACL last season), is otherwise in good health. Florida's media guide lists Patchan at 6-6 and 292 pounds but a couple of players said the junior from Tampa is pushing 300 for the first time in his career.

"We're just working with him on the sideline and being cautious with him," Meyer said.

Freshman wide receiver Chris Dunkley has chronic hamstring problems that have plagued him since his senior year in high school. 

"I was in the meeting room with him yesterday and it is just a 10-day injury so they are going to watch him really closely on a certain program," Meyer said. 

SAVING MONEY AT THE BARBER SHOP: Redshirt freshman Jon Halapio says he hasn't had a haircut since he was a junior in high school. The 6-3, 312-pound guard of Tongan descent, who is fighting for the starter's job on the right side of the offensive line, has a rather bushy mane that he pulls back and ties into a rather thick pony tail that hangs well below the bottom of his helmet. 

"I was thinking about getting it cut but my mother wouldn't let me," Halapio said. "She says she might not see my number but she can always tell where I am by looking for my hair."

Halapio, who is the human equivalent of a rather large concrete block, says he can bench press 225 pounds 31 consecutive reps. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Austin won't try to reinvent the wheel

In the ideal defense that Teryl Austin dreams to put on the field at the University of Florida, the blitz will be used sparingly, needed only for a change of pace because the defensive linemen are spending the entire game in the backfield harassing the opposing quarterback. Having spent most of his coaching career in the National Football League, Austin knows that the more pressure from the defensive line, the less you need the blitz which means more players in position to make plays on the football.

"I think if everyone could do that they would because then you don’t put yourself in stressful situations and you don‘t put yourself in terms of your team in situations where you might not have the right numbers," Austin said Monday morning after the Gators concluded their first full practice with both the freshmen and returning vets together. 
As Florida's new defensive coordinator, Austin isn't bringing a new philosophy to the table or advocating wholesale changes in the way things are done. The Gators won two national championships in the previous five seasons with a dominating defense sculpted by coordinator Charlie Strong, who became Louisville's new head coach after the 2009 season. Obviously, what Strong was doing worked quite well so there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Instead of turning things upside down, Austin, who coached record-breaking secondaries that got their teams to the Super Bowl in both Seattle and Arizona, will tweak a few things along the way but the philosophy --- get the best players on the field and tailor the defense to what they do best --- will stay the same. 
Because he is back in the college game for the first time since 2002 when he coached the secondary at Michigan, Austin is relying heavily on input from Chuck Heater and Dan McCarney, holdovers from the previous staff, and from new linebackers coach D.J. Durkin, who came to Florida after a successful stint at Stanford. Heater has been a part of two national championships at Florida (2006 and 2008) while McCarney was on the 2008 staff. 
The 2006 team rarely blitzed, getting almost all of its pressure from a front four that held  Ohio State to 83 total yards in Florida's 41-14 national championship win over Ohio State. Ohio State's Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith still hears the footsteps from Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss. Florida's 2008 national championship team didn't get near the pass rush from the front four so it needed a variety of zone and corner blitzes to bring the pressure.
Both systems worked well because they were designed to fit the talents of the personnel and that's a philosophy that isn't going to change just because there is a new defensive coordinator. 
"The big thing I didn’t want to do is come in here and say I’m changing everything," Austin said. "Really, at the end of the day it’s what can our guys do and do well. So we kind of merged all that together. No egos in our (defensive) room. The bottom line is we want to do what is best for our team. Because I did it someway somewhere else doesn’t make it right and because they did it someway somewhere doesn’t make it right. The big thing is what’s right for this team this year."
Ideally, he says, what is right is for the pressure to come from the defensive line and he's confident that he will find the right combinations from those 17 scholarship linemen to make it work. 
"It's (pressure) going to come our pass rush," he said. "Our guys are going to get it done."
If the Gators can get it done up front then the secondary and linebackers can be more aggressive. Austin likes to attack and while he would like to get most of the quarterback pressure from his front four, he's not afraid to blitz. He also knows that game situations sometimes require more of a read and react scheme. 
No matter the scheme, however, the Gators will be aggressive. 
"We’re going to be aggressive which doesn’t always mean blitzing," Austin said. "I think sometimes people get the idea that if you’re an aggressive team you’re always a blitzing team. That doesn’t mean that. I think we can be aggressive without blitzing. I think we’ll fall somewhere in between but that will be dictated by the game."
Unlike the NFL whose schemes on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball are often limited by personnel numbers (you can only carry 47 players on an active game day roster), the college game is more wide open due to greater depth (85 scholarship players available. While a majority of NFL teams stick with the West Coast offense, the college game is gravitating toward the spread.
And, as Alabama proved in last year's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, it's possible to run power formations and switch to the spread without changing personnel. That puts tremendous pressure on defensive coordinators to have players flexible enough to switch from a 4-3, which is better for rushing the passer, to a 3-4, which is better against the spread.
Austin says the Gators will be flexible enough in their schemes to run both a 4-3 and a 3-4 but because of the spread, you might see more 3-4 this year than you're used to.
"I think that’s probably what you’re seeing because you can be a little more flexible in some of things you can do with a 4-3 but at the end of the day you have to make sure you have the right personnel on the field," Austin said. "If they’re spreading you out, they usually have a plan why they’re spreading you out and how they’re spreading you out so you have to have figure that out before you change personnel just to change personnel. I think the 3-4 does give you flexibility because you can match up your balance, their balance and we go and we just play from there."
From a philosophical standpoint, flexibility is critical. From a practical standpoint, it's all about fitting the scheme to the talent of the personnel.
"It all goes back to the same thing: what can our players do, what can they do well, what gives us the best chance to win?" Austin said. "If it is getting into some 3-4 then it’s getting in a 3-4. If it’s staying in a 4-3 and letting our guys hunt off the edge that’s what we’re going to do."
* * * 
If there is one player on the defensive side of the ball who helped himself the most in the offseason, Austin says it is fourth-year junior tackle Jaye Howard. 
"The one guy Coach Mick (strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti) talked about a bunch who really had a heckuva summer is Jaye Howard," Austin said. "Jaye Howard, from what I understand in the past, hasn’t been that guy but he really has kind of turned the corner and he is one guy that kept coming up that Mick was saying ‘boy he really had an outstanding summer for him’ in addition to numerous guys but he is one guy that kind of turned the corner that we’re counting on."
* * *
Florida's 2010 defense will be led by a strong group of veterans. The Gators have starters or experienced players at every position except one and that is the corner opposite two-year starter Janoris Jenkins. When spring practice ended, the open corner position was a two-way battle between senior Moses Jenkins, who has distinguished himself as a special teams standout but not as part of the regular defense, and Jeremy Brown, whose back issues have caused him to miss the last two seasons since he early enrolled in January of 2008. Brown is healthy now and ready to compete with Jenkins for the starters job, but Austin warns that several freshmen will also be given a chance to compete for the job.
Janoris Jenkins is secure as one starter, but the second spot will go to whoever proves to be the second best player at the corner position.
"I think Jeremy Brown and Moses Jenkins are involved at that position in addition to any of our freshmen," Austin said. "At the end of the day we know Janoris is one corner. What we’re trying to do is develop our next corner --- if it’s Moses, if it’s Jeremy, if it’s one of the young guys --- and what we’ll do as we get going through the next two weeks will determine who our second best corner is. If it happens to be a guy that’s in the boundary we’ll move him to the field. If it happens to be that guy that’s out there, hey we’re going to move ahead and go full speed but we’re going to put our best players on the field. We owe that to our team."


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Meyer, agents talking about reforms

 In the midst of what seems to be an epidemic of agents making illegal contact with college football players, Florida coach Urban Meyer says he's involved in some discussions that could lead to some much-needed reform. Speaking to the media following Thursday afternoon's freshman practice, Meyer said it's not just college coaches who are concerned about the problems but plenty of good agents who want to put an end to the illegal practices of agents who want to skirt the rules.

"There's a lot of discussion that I've been involved with with agents," Meyer said. "We actually had a great discussion --- I can't go into detail yet --- but a group of us have gotten together and we're trying to make some changes from anything from signing balls and getting them sold on the internet to practice where people are just showing up."

During the height of Tebow-mania, huge crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of and perhaps an autograph from Florida's charismatic Heisman Trophy quarterback. But not all the fans were there with good intentions. Every day the same old folks were showing up outside the Sanders Practice Field with helmets, footballs and other things to be signed that were later sold on the internet. It has created enough of a distraction that Meyer says things will be different from here on out.

Meyer can't do anything about the long walk from the Florida locker rooms in the South End Zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to the Sanders Practice Facility but he can do something to police the crowds that have become a distraction to his players. 

"People are showing up and who are you and why are you here?" Meyer said. "We can't live the players' lives but we can do the best we can and you should have the right as a player to walk from here to there without being bothered and practice and come back without being bothered. Now if you get bothered on your own ... but that's my fault. For five years ... that's crazy. When I tell that to my colleagues that you get dressed and you walk across and people just maul you and bother you and internet people grabbing helmets ...sign this and all this ... and we don't have security saying 'get the heck out of here.' So you'll see a lot of 'get the heck out of here' from now on. Let the kids go practice and concentrate on football which is what our job is." 

Meyer is also aware that the crowds of fans also open the door for agents and their runners, another reason why he's making changes with security and why there are these ongoing discussions with a group of reform-minded agents. There will also be a concerted effort to educate his players so they can better deal with the distractions and temptations.

"We're going to have a lot of discussions around here and continual non-stop education," Meyer said. "It's an epidemic. You flip on a TV and you hear someone talk and it's this school, this school, this school. That's nuts. The good thing is the other side of this wants to help and when I say that I mean they really want to help. There are going to be some positive things that come out of this."

CAPTAINS: Meyer said that senior center Mike Pouncey and senior defensive end Justin Trattou have been named team captains. Usually, captains aren't announced until later during August practice but Meyer said he wanted to address leadership immediately and this is one way to handle it.

"Mike Pouncey and (Justin) Trattou have been named captains," Meyer said. "There will be more to come but we made a decision --- Coach Mick (Marotti), myself and Steve (Addazio) --- that we're going to announce captains right now to take charge of this team. Ahmad Black is going to be involved in that. Lawrence Marsh is a leader on our team now. He's done a great job and there will be more that will show up soon." 
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Just because Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes and a whole host of seniors and juniors who left early for the NFL are gone doesn't mean expectations won't be high for the Gators. Last year the Gators fell short of their goal of repeating as national champions but they still finished 13-1 and ranked third nationally. This year's group may not have the marquee names but it's still a very talented team with plenty of great players so the expectations will be high once again. 

"I don't know if pressure is the right word but the expectation level within our team of what we expected with all those kids coming back last year with Tim (Tebow) and (Brandon) Spikes and Joe (Haden) and all those guys ... it's a little bit different feeling but it's still Florida," Meyer said. "It's still a bunch of good athletes --- not good, probably great --- running around on that field. It's a year of accountability and development and if that happens we'll have a good team. If it doesn't, we won't."

Following the 2006 season, the Gators lost several key seniors as well as some juniors to the NFL who would have made a huge difference in the outcome of the 2007 season. The Gators lost a lot of players after last season but Meyer says the situation is different now because the Gators have recruited well enough that talented players are ready to step in and play.

"It's a little bit like '07 but we have better players," he said. "In '07 we took a hit because to be quite honest, guys were playing who shouldn't have been on the field. Now you have guys who should be on the field but you have to develop them pretty quick which is a huge difference. This is part of the game. When guys leave early you have to replace them. Like John Brantley ... you don't replace Tim with a guy who's been here one year. He (Brantley) has been here three years. You've got some other positions that guys have been here and it's time for them to play."

ON BRANTLEY BECOMING A LEADER: Now that Tebow has gone to the NFL, it's Johnny Brantley's show which means he assumes the key role in directing the offense as well as leading the team. Meyer says Brantley should be ready to take the next step.

"You have no choice but to be a leader if you're a quarterback," Meyer said. "Now Chris Leak is probably one of the greatest stories of all time on how to develop a leader. He was not a leader and as a result was not a good quarterback. Now someone said he threw for a lot of yards but if you lose five games a year you're not a good quarterback and then he flipped a switch and he became not only a good leader but a great leader and we won a national championship. As a leader of the team, Johnny has to be and he's taken that step. These next 28 practices will be a good indication of where he's at."

ON DEPTH ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE: The Gators will start the season with more defensive line depth than they've had at any time since Meyer has been Florida's coach. With 17 scholarship linemen, the Gators are deep and talented which should lead to the kind of rotation that is conducive to a high level of play.

"This is as good a depth as we've had and that's going to be a key," Meyer said. "There's a lot of guys ... Brandon Antwine (knee) --- how long is he going to hold up? (Lawrence) Marsh (high ankle sprain) has had injuries. (Terron) Sanders (knee) has had injuries ... significant injuries. At the beginning of '06 we had a group playing 25-30 snaps a game. If you do that you can play with the effort we expect you to play at. If you're playing 70-80 plays your body can't hold up."

Meyer also mentioned that freshman defensive linemen Lynden Trail (6-7, 217), Ronald Powell (6-4, 248), Shariff Floyd (6-3, 301), Dominique Easley (6-1, 280) and Leon Orr (6-4, 315) are an outstanding group of physical specimens who, when they broke the huddle at Thursday's practice and stood by graduate assistant Tony Weaver, who played nine years in the NFL, caused Meyer to day, "They all kind of look alike over there." 

LAWRENCE TRANSFERS; PARKS OUT FOR 2-3 WEEKS: Third-year sophomore wide receiver T.J. Lawrence has opted to transfer to another school in search of more playing time. Redshirt freshman tight end Desmond Parks will be out 2-3 weeks after a surgical procedure on his wrist.

Rainey haunted by loss to Alabama

Chris Rainey keeps watching the DVD of the Alabama debacle in last year's Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Sometimes it's with teammates and sometimes it's when he's all alone but always, it's a bit of self-induced torture, a necessary pain that serves as a constant reminder of the worst loss he's ever been a part of since he started playing football. 

"We got embarrassed," Rainey said Thursday morning after the Florida Gators had finished their first preseason practice for their September 4 debut against Miami of Florida. "We looked like a high school team out there."

When Rainey was in high school at Lakeland, the mighty Dreadnaughts turned winning into an art form, taking their last 45 straight games --- most in convincing fashion --- as they won three straight Florida state championships and two mythical high school national championships. At Florida, Rainey took a medical redshirt his freshman year and then won a national championship ring as a redshirt freshman in 2008. Throughout the first 12 games of the 2009 season, the Gators maintained their winning ways but then came the week of the SEC Championship Game and the wheels started coming off early for Florida. 

It began with the arrest of All-SEC defensive end Carlos Dunlap for DUI following a Monday night birthday party attended by a sizable group of players. The Dunlap incident and the subsequent questions about why so many Gators were partying on the Monday night before the most important game of the season created enough distraction that the Florida team that took the field Saturday night bore very little resemblance to the Gators who had won their previous 22 games. 

"Every time they show the video, it's like is that us ... for real?" Rainey asks. 

It was the Gators and it was real to the tune of 32-13. Alabama went on to win the national championship and while the Gators regrouped to blow Cincinnati's doors off 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl, it was little consolation for a team that went through 12 games hoping to become the first repeat national champion since Nebraska did the trick in 1994-95. 

The memory of that Alabama game has everything to do with an offseason regimen that Rainey says "was ridiculous." Some of the offseason work, which Rainey says "seems like they were trying to kill us with punishment," was the handiwork of strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti. Outsiders looking in might think Marotti has a sadistic streak but there is method to his madness. Players who endure an offseason of his training end up bigger, stronger, faster and more importantly, tougher. 

But Marotti wasn't the only one motivating the team and getting everyone to work harder in the gym and put forth the effort in the sweltering summer heat in the afternoons. 

"We did it on our own," Rainey said. "That's the good thing about it. We did it on our own and we didn't have to use the coaches to tell us what to do and all that."

The end result of a motivated offseason is a team from diverse backgrounds and circumstances that has become more like a band of brothers.

"This is the closest team I've ever been around," Rainey said.

The difficulty of the offseason workouts, the collective embarrassment of that loss to Alabama and the tireless efforts of team leaders has produced a motivated the team that has closed ranks and bonded. Rainey says everybody is friendly, accountable and always looking for ways to have fun together as a team.

"There's just a bond this year like I've never seen since I've been here," he said.

Rainey and no one else would ever question Tim Tebow's dedication, determination or leadership abilities, but by the time Tebow reached his senior season at Florida, he had become a living legend and bigger than life personality who required around the clock monitoring to keep him safe from overzealous fans. And, Florida was so loaded with draftable talent that NFL distractions grew stronger with each passing week. 

Add to those factors the mounting pressure of a 22-game winning streak and the weight of high expectations and the recipe was there for cracks in the team armor. Rainey says there were definitely some self-centered and divisive elements.

"You could say cliques ... [guys] worrying about themselves, worrying about trying to get to the NFL and stuff like that," Rainey said. 

Tebow graduated and went to the NFL to the Denver Broncos in the first round. Nine other Gators were drafted and several others signed free agent agreements. For most teams, that kind of personnel attrition would be devastating. At Florida, it's what is expected. Graduation and the NFL will always be a part of the Gator landscape but Urban Meyer has the recruiting machine going so well that the holes are filled instantly by players of equal or perhaps even greater talent. 

While this year's team might not have marquee names like Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, there is no shortage of talent. Unlike last year's team which had to deal with the mega personalities and all the baggage that accompanied them, this group has bonded together, determined to move the Florida football program forward.

"I guess we got rid of all the prima donnas and selfish cats," Rainey said. "That's probably it this year. No rock stars this year."

There aren't any rock stars, but this team oozes with talent. Rainey, who has rushed for 1,278 yards (7.1 per carry) in his two seasons splitting time at tailback with Jeff Demps, moves to the slot this year where his speed and elusiveness should provide home run capability to a position which slumped to 350 total yards (rushing and receiving) and only one touchdown last year after averaging 1,450 and 14 touchdowns the previous three seasons. 

Rainey got his first start at the slot in the Sugar Bowl where he gave the Gators more than 200 all-purpose yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks against Cincinnati. His four pass receptions for 71 yards were indicative of the kind of production that he'll be expected to give this year. 

It's a new position for Rainey, who has always played tailback, but it's a change he has embraced with determination. 

"Since I've been growing up I never thought I was going to be a receiver," Rainey said. "Every time I look on You Tube the receiver goes across the middle and gets the big hits and now that's not going to be me [getting hit]. I'm going to keep myself from doing that but receiver is fun. You don't get many injuries from it. A lot of running ... it's harder than running back, but I'm good at it."

In addition to learning pass routes and how to make all the catches, Rainey has also had to learn how to read defenses to adjust routes based on the coverage in the secondary.

"At receiver you have to know everything," he said. "What they call a running back you just know one thing and you're done. A receiver ... details like if on the ball or off the ball ... everything."

Everything also includes blocking. When he first came to Florida, Rainey didn't have a clue about blocking. At Lakeland, he lined up in the I-formation, took a handoff or a pitchout and let his speed and elusiveness take over.  At Florida, where the offense is the spread option, a tailback has to be as much a blocker as he does runner or receiver.

That took some adjusting but Rainey discovered that blocking cornerbacks and safeties is a tad easier than taking on a defensive end or blitzing linebacker.

"Way easier, too ... somebody coming at you full speed about 250 pounds," he said with an infectious laugh. 

Armed with a new position, a leadership role on the team --- he says Mike Pouncey, John Brantley, Justin Trattou, Deonte Thompson, Carl Moore and Ahmad Black are the other leaders --- and the determination to erase the memory of that Alabama game, Rainey is ready to get the season started. Like all the other Gators, that Alabama game has created a rather hefty chip on his shoulder and a searing need to prove that one game was a fluke, not the norm at Florida.

"We've got a lot to prove," he said. "The only thing we can do is get to Atlanta [for the SEC Championship Game in December]. That's all we can do. I can't stop thinking about it. I think about it every day."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Practice begins which means a new season has arrived

The Florida Gators start practice this morning in what just might be the most anticipated August since Urban Meyer took over in 2005. There are so many question marks for the Gators, but there is no denying that Meyer has stocked the roster with talent. The Gators are two and three-deep --- or more --- at every single position and there are players who could be starting at other schools in the Southeastern Conference who will have to patiently wait their turn to get on the field at Florida. 

Most of the attention will center on Johnny Brantley, who is in the unenviable position of having to step in and replace a legend. How will Brantley fill Tim Tebow's enormous shoes?

The answer is simple. He won't.

Instead of trying to fill Tebow's shoes, Brantley needs to carve out his own niche. If he concentrates on being the first Johnny Brantley rather than the next Tim Tebow, he will do just fine. He's got the arm, the smarts and the command of the offense, plus he's got a stockpile of offensive weapons second to none in the SEC. There isn't a team other than Florida in the SEC capable of going five wide with sprinters who have all turned in a 10.5 or faster in the 100 meters. And, Brantley has four very capable tailbacks who can run the football so he doesn't have to take on that role of the battering ram on third and short.

With Florida's offensive weapons at the skill positions, something tells us that the Gators probably aren't going to have many third and shorts this year. 

It's been a good summer for Brantley. He's worked all the receivers hard during the dog days when the sun scorches the practice field and everyone willing to brave the heat but in particular, he's on the same page with Deonte Thompson, Carl Moore, Chris Rainey and Omarius Hines. Watch for those four to emerge during August as go-to guys in the passing game.

Rainey can catch the ball and he can give that Percy dimension by sliding back into the backfield and taking handoffs or pitchouts on the option. He's going to be dynamic.

Thompson is the consummate deep threat while Moore and Hines have the size and brute strength to wear our folks in the middle of the field.

Watch what's going on with the offensive line, too. Matt Patchan's leg has healed and he's really huge, which means there is a solid three-man rotation at tackle. If Mo Hurt, James Wilson or Jon Halapio have a great August to solidify the right guard position, then the Gators will have the best line in the SEC and maybe one that's as good as there is anywhere in the country.

Anytime the line is mentioned, it's a requirement to mention Mike Pouncey. He's in the best shape of his life, and ready to be the best center in the country. And, Carl Johnson is also in great shape. At 6-6, 355, he's going to crush people at left guard.

Over on defense, the two names to track are William Green and Ronald Powell. Green has bulked up and will play in the 255-260 range. With that explosive first step, now that he's got the size and strength, he will terrorize quarterbacks. Powell has a chance to be special from day one. He can be that hybrid defensive end linebacker. I've compared him to Lawrence Taylor at the same age. I saw Taylor in high school and as a freshman at North Carolina, and I see the same qualities and strengths in Powell. 

There's plenty of leadership on the defensive side, too, with Brandon Hicks, Ahmad Black and Justin Trattou. It only seems like they've been here forever. They've earned their stripes and they are solid on the field and unchallenged in the locker room. 

We'll have media availability twice today: returning veterans at 11 a.m. and Urban Meyer at 6:30. I'll be posting here with quotes and other goodies from day one.