It started out with a little bit of extra pushing and shoving. Maurkice Pouncey was at it with Troy Epps in a three-on-three drill where pads were popping and coaches were yelling things like “hit them with your purse!” to linemen that didn’t show quite enough toughness or aggression. The whistles blew but Epps and Pouncey had hands in each other’s faces and that’s when things got interesting.
There was a swing and a miss and a retaliatory swing that also missed followed by some shoving and pushing. By this time, Pouncey and Epps had teammates from the offensive and defensive lines egging them on. The pile of humanity moved about 10 yards to the end zone and then over to the pylon. By then there had been a few more swings, some that might have come close to connecting and some that whiffed completely. About then, Maurkice Pouncey assumed his John L. Sullivan boxing stance, dukes up and on his toes.
That’s when the coaches finally broke it up and pulled the two combatants aside. In a couple of minutes, things had died down and it was back to normal with a lot of hitting and contact on the final real day of practice for the Florida Gators before Saturday’s Orange and Blue Debut at The Swamp (1 p.m., ESPN).
The intensity of that one-minute encounter pretty much emphasized the kind of day it was. Coach Urban Meyer said Monday he wanted to see intensity on Wednesday and intensity is exactly what he got on a winners/losers day that ended with a scrimmage won by the offense. Because the defense lost, the entire unit had to run extra sprints at the end of practice.
“It was an excellent day and I appreciate their efforts,” said Florida coach Urban Meyer.
There were a few plays of note on this day. Chris Rainey broke a 59-yard touchdown run that was called back for holding. Riley Cooper caught a 50-yard bomb from Tim Tebow when he out-leaped Jamar Hornsby for the ball at the five-yard line. Wondy Pierre-Louis sat on a slant route and got a pick and Janoris Jenkins had an interception off a ricochet. Emmanuel Moody broke a couple of tackles, made a defender miss and then cut outside for a long gainer and David Nelson had two excellent catches for touchdowns, one where he made an excellent adjustment on pass by Cam Newton and the other a 25-yard score toward the end of the scrimmage.
It has been a spring marked by the intensity of competition at nearly every position on the field. On the defensive line and in the secondary, improvement has been seen nearly on a daily basis. No matter the position, there has been enough competition combined with effort that Meyer believes he’s seen what he needed to see out of spring practice.
“We’re leaving the practice field after practice 13 and I’m fairly positive,” said Meyer. “There are some things that we have to grow up. There are some things going on that you don’t expect out of a mature football team. We’re not.”
Effort, enthusiasm and intensity were elements that Meyer had to see this spring but as important as those things are to the building of a successful team, so is chemistry and he’s seen marked improvement in that area.
That was a necessity after what he went through last year.
“We’re better but we’re not where we need to be,” said Meyer. “You can’t win a championship without great chemistry and last year it was awful … the chemistry on our football team. I’m surprised that it went as well as it did at times when I think of some of the things we had to witness as a team. That’s not good football compared to where it was the year before on January 9 in Glendale.”
There is an awareness among the team that there were chemistry issues last year. Even though the chemistry isn’t where Meyer wants it to be, he is seeing progress in that area and he knows he’s got a team working to rectify any problems.
Last year, when there were chemistry issues, Meyer didn’t see a team working to overcome the problems.
“We’ve still got a long way to go but they understand there’s an issue,” said Meyer. “Last year I think they denied it after shaking hands with the president. ‘What are you talking about coach? Chemistry issues? What are you guys talking about? We’re champs!’ Champs?”
This spring there is no denial. A 9-4 season that included some heartbreaking losses sobers teams up quickly and makes them face reality. If the Gators can carry the attitude, effort and intensity of this spring into August, Meyer could have a very good thing going because there is no denying he’s got players at every position now.
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Percy Harvin had surgery on his heel and even though the operation was more complicated than expected, Meyer is expecting a normal recovery and rehab.
“I talked to him this morning,” said Meyer. “They actually took bone out of his heel — think about that for a moment. Then they drilled holes in his heel so if you guys get some spare time tonight, do that and tell me how you feel.”
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A couple of players who have battled through some health issues this spring stood out in Tuesday’s scrimmage. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had perhaps his best practice of the spring and wide receiver David Nelson, feeling healthy for a change, showed what he can do when the ball is thrown in his direction.
Meyer said that Cunningham’s health issue required holding him out of a couple of practices and that contributed to a spring with very little production.
“He’s had a very average spring because he has a rapid heart rate that he every once in awhile gets,” said Meyer. “It showed up again [this spring] and I put him behind a couple of days.”
Cunningham had 6.5 sacks in 2007. It was a decent year but by no means was it the kind of season that Meyer wants to see again.
“He’s got to get a lot better,” said Meyer. “That position he plays is the position Jarvis Moss played. He [Moss] changed the game. Jermaine hasn’t done that. He’s a good solid player that we expect much more out of.”
Nelson, who graded champion on a regular basis in 2007 because he was such an outstanding blocker, has had good production catching the ball this spring when he’s been able to go full speed.
“David’s been up and down all spring because of injury,” said Meyer. “His attitude has been great. He’s had a knee … they thought it was a cartilage but it’s not. He’s been gimped up all spring.”
On Nelson’s first touchdown catch Wednesday, the ball was supposed to be thrown to the inside but instead it went to the outside, forcing Nelson to make a 180 degree turn to snag the ball from Cameron Newton for a score. On his second touchdown, he put a good move on the corner and broke in the clear, catching the 25-yard pass from Newton for a touchdown before safety Ahmad Black could get over to help.
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Maurkice and Michael Pouncey continue to have a profound effect on the Gators. Last season Maurkice made freshman All-America at guard while Mike left his role as the backup center on the offensive unit to take over at nose tackle on the defense with four games remaining in the season. He re-energized that unit and the Gators played their best defense of the season during the month of November.
Maurkice has moved to center now and Mike is back on the offensive line, starting in Maurkice’s former position at right guard. They’ve made an impact with their high voltage personalities and intensity. The fight that Maurkice got into with Troy Epps was the third one he’s been involved in with a defensive lineman this spring. Mike has gotten into a couple of scrapes, too.
The after the whistle battles are indicative of the kind of energy the Pouncey twins bring to the field every day.
“I can’t imagine not having them,” said Meyer, who recruited the Pouncey twins and five other players off Lakeland High School’s three-time state and two-time national championship teams. All seven of the Lakeland kids figure to play significant minutes this fall. The Pounceys will start on the offensive line. Steve Wilks will see action at fullback and on special teams. Paul Wilson (recovering from a dislocated knee cap) will be a backup wide receiver and a special teams contributor. John Brown is in the rotation at defensive tackle and Ahmad Black is in the rotation at safety.
And then there is Chris Rainey, the electric tailback whom Meyer said, “I don’t know if he’s going to be a starter but he’s going to play next year.”
The Pounceys set an attitude standard for the rest of the team. They lift the team with their energy and they’ve even made it a point to be helpful to teammates.
“I think they’ve helped James Wilson; I think they’ve helped Jason Watkins,” said Meyer. “I think they’ve helped Urban Meyer … they’ve helped Steve Addazio. Every time they come out here, they love the game, they have a smile on their face and let’s go play football.”
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Meyer has been impressed with the way that rising senior Kestahn Moore has handled the increased competition at the tailback position. It’s been a spring when there was plenty of hype for Southern Cal transfer Emmanuel Moody. Rainey has broken a long run nearly every single practice and lately Mon Williams, who missed last season rehabbing a torn ACL, has come on strong.
Moore has just gone about his business and turned in a solid spring. He’s looked powerful between the tackles and has even broken a couple of long runs like the 39-yarder he had at last Saturday’s scrimmage.
Meyer said Moore has handled things this spring “the way you would expect him to.” Meyer went on to say that Moore could be a thousand yard rusher “if he holds onto the football.”
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Meyer said that Saturday’s Orange and Blue Debut will be a “fan appreciation day” with plenty of activities at The Swamp. The College Game Day crew (Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, Erin Andrews) will be there from ESPN, which is broadcasting the game in front of what Meyer hopes will be a huge crowd similar to the one he saw in the stands his first year in 2005 (60,000).
The National Championship Trophy and Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy will be on display for fans when Gate 7 opens at 9:30. Fans will have a chance to have their photos taken with the trophies from 9:30-11 a.m. The first 2,000 fans will receive a coupon good for a free hot dog during the game.
Also from 9:30-11 a.m. Meyer and the Gators will be available for autographs in the north end zone concourse. The University of Florida will provide posters for autographing. Outside items will not be allowed as per NCAA rules.
From 11-11:45 a.m., there will be a flag football game on the field in The Swamp featuring two all-star teams chosen from the student body and coached by Florida assistants Dan McCarney and Kenny Carter.
There will be a skills challenge and before the kickoff there will be a Fastest Gator on Campus contest pitting five students against Gators Louis Murphy, Deonte Thompson and Chris Rainey in a 40-yard race.
And, of course, there will be the game. Meyer is hoping the atmosphere at the stadium will be impressive to recruits who are at the game and those watching on television.
“I want recruits across the country to say I want to be a part of that!” he said.