At today’s media gathering, Coach Dan Mullen and Chris Leak, Steve Rissler, Dallas Baker, and Andre Caldwell answer a variety of questions in Phoenix, Arizona.
Q. Gentlemen, if you were the Ohio State defense, how would you defend you guys?
JEMALLE CORNELIUS: I would probably, you know, just blitz, I guess, if I was the defense. No matter who I was playing, I am the type of guy I would be real aggressive and just blitz and play man-to-man coverage.
Q. Would you like to see man-to-man coverage?
JEMALLE CORNELIUS: Definitely as a receiver you look forward to the challenge of man-to-man coverage. That’s what it is all about as a receiver. If you can go one-on-one with a DB, most of the time you expect to win and you should win as a receiver. You kind of have got an advantage. You are going forward and they are going backwards. I think definitely you would like to see that as a receiver.
Q. Chris, can you talk about your coach and how much he has influenced you, what your impressions were when got to Florida and how he has helped you along to get to this point?
CHRIS LEAK: I think Coach Meyer has really helped me grow, mature as a quarterback and just everything that goes with them being the leader of your team and getting the guys to play to the best of their ability has really helped me out as far as that.
Q. Chris, can you talk about, there has been some setbacks and maybe negative things have happened, players with losses and the past few years haven’t gone the way you wanted to and you come into this game as an underdog. How you can take all of that stuff to work as a positive in this game?
CHRIS LEAK: We are the type of team that we have always stayed hungry throughout the season and for every game. And this is one of those things that we just approach it the same way. We are—this is where we expected to be in the beginning of the season, and we just feel fortunate, feel very blessed to be here and we are just going to prepare the best we can.
Q. This is for all of you guys. What was the most dramatic change when Coach Meyer arrived? What did he do that changed the culture? What was the most dramatic change for you guys?
CHRIS LEAK: I think he just made all the guys really accountable for one another. He really stressed teamwork and what it takes to be a championship team of guys coming together and working hard in the off-season and growing as a family.
STEVE RISSLER: I think one of the biggest differences between the last coaching staff and Coach Meyer is that they stress family a lot. And we really—I mean, honestly I didn’t really go to my coach’s house in the last coaching staff. This time I have been numerous times and hung out with their kids and their—I know their wife. I think he really stresses family and he prepares you to be not only a good football player but a good person and eventually he wants you to become a good dad. He really stresses that.
JEMALLE CORNELIUS: Yeah, I think pretty much like Rissler said, you have coaches getting into your personal life, visiting you at your house and having you over to their house. You know, just telling us to be a family and he really promoted that and I think a lot of guys bought into it and helped us to be close off the field, doing more activities, going bowling and just hanging out all the time. I think that help us in the close games we had this year because of the trust that we had in each other from opening up and getting close.
Q. This is for Chris and Steve. With such a long lay off between both games and all the practice and preparation time, how do you make the balance to make sure you are not overprepared going into this ball game where you are thinking maybe too much?
CHRIS LEAK: I think you have to keep doing what you do best as an offense and really just try to focus on—just get everything fundamentally sound and focus on your fundamentals as an offense. That’s one of the major things about having a lay off is guys make sure the fundamentals are still where they were at the beginning of the season.
STEVE RISSLER: I really think it helps us out a lot. It gives us an advantage. We have had the game plan in for probably two weeks now, and now we are just going out practicing, trying to execute it. Once it comes game time, we just need to focus on executing the game plan and be able to run the ball and that will set up the pass. It is going to help us out a lot in the end.
Q. Everybody talks about Florida’s defensive speed. How do you guys see Ohio State’s speed and how they compare to what you have seen before?
CHRIS LEAK: Well, they will definitely be the best team we have faced all year. Main thing we have to do is, we can’t be out there worried about speed. We have to worry just about making sure we are communicating the right way and that we have to put guys in position to be successful.
Q. Steve, you talk about closeness and family from the coaching staff. But the guy next to you on the offensive line is a guy you have known way back. You played high school football together. Tell me about your relationship with Drew and how far back do you go? How long have you played together that you know?
STEVE RISSLER: All my high school years, obviously he is a year younger than me. I played baseball with him growing up. We have been real close. He is one of my real good friends. And it is good to have someone like that, you know, on the line. Because if something happens, I can always turn to him. Being the leader on the offensive line, he has helped me out a lot, along with Trautwein. He has done a great job, too. I think it helps us come together. He is always at my house hanging out and I try to have the offensive linemen over all the time.
It helps us become a lot closer.
Q. Chris, from day one you said you came to Florida to play in a national championship game. It took longer than I am sure you wanted to. Brandon Siler said he played this game in his head over 1,000 times. Have you sat back and thought about the game and the way things will move and the outcome?
CHRIS LEAK: I think as a player to prepare for this type game, you have to kind of just go in your mind of what the atmosphere is going to be like, just picture what you have to do as far as going to your assignments. I think that’s what you have to do as far as having a big layover and trying to prepare the best you can.
Q. Chris, you came to Florida as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Had a coaching change. Things kind of changed for you. Do you feel like this season determines your college career?
CHRIS LEAK: I think—I think being able to play for a national title your senior year really is a great thing. I just feel really blessed to be in a situation that the Lord put me in.
I just feel—it makes me real proud, the seniors of this team, we put a lot of hard work and dedication over these four years and to be in a position we are today is really, really makes you proud all the hard work has paid off.
Q. Chris, talk about Andre as a receiver and when he was injured against Tennessee, he says he didn’t know if he would ever play football again. When got back on the field, did you think he would ever be the same player again?
CHRIS LEAK: Just through his spring and through two-a-days, getting my time back with Andre, you can just tell he is a fighter, he is a warrior. Somebody to come back from a broken leg and the way he has been playing throughout the season, that’s a lot of credit to him and his work ethic and dedication to help this team get to this position.
I never had any doubt ‘cause I knew him through high school, my four years here. There was no doubt in my mind he would be ready to go.
Q. Steve, Coach Mullen talked about the key matchup being their front four against you guys up front. What are your impression of their front four and how tough they will be to match up against?
STEVE RISSLER: Like Chris said, this will be one of the best teams we have faced. There are a lot of great defenses in the SEC that we have faced. And Ohio State, they have, you know, all-American defensive tackle in Pitcock and defensive player of the year. They have some good players in the defense. I think that’s going to determine the outcome of the game. Whether or not we can pick up blitzes and block their defensive front. If we give Chris the time to pass the ball, he will make some good plays and I know our receivers will catch it.
Q. Steve, it was talked about at Coach Meyer, is he like a father figure to you, to the team?
STEVE RISSLER: I think so. He has changed a lot of people’s lives. He made people that, you know, could have end up know where, you know, probably going to play—probably play in the NFL. He has really done a lot for this team and he really takes his job seriously, like, I think any head coach would.
But, like I said, he has changed so many guys’ lives on the team and for the better and made everybody a better person.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.
Q. Good morning, Andre. Can you take us back to the Tennessee game last season when you injured your leg and how far you have come since then. And back then when you injured your leg, what were you thinking, what are you thinking today, and compare the two?
ANDRE CALDWELL: Back when I injured my leg, it was a devastating accident. It hurt me a lot. It was a long process to get back to the playing ability I am at now. But all my friends, family, teammates and our whole Florida alumni—Florida people just helping me get back and they just supported me all throughout the process. And I was just grateful to be here. I didn’t know if I would ever have a chance to play football again.
I am just appreciative of everything I got right now and it is just a great opportunity. I am just loving Florida right now.
Q. Coach, Ohio State gave up 400 yards, 39 points to Michigan, kind of uncharacteristic. What kind of things as you look at that game, do you see any weaknesses with the defense and how do you guys go about exploiting it?
ANDRE CALDWELL: You know, the one thing that Michigan did, they took some shots. Michigan made some plays when opportunities were there to be made to have the big plays. When you are playing a team like Ohio State, they don’t give you many opportunities. They are pretty solid from front to back. You don’t look and say, okay, there is a weak spot of that defense, we need to attack this weak spot. They are pretty solid from their D line all the way through the secondary.
What you have to do is when you have an opportunity to make a play, you get the ball, someone in space. They need to make somebody miss and make something happen big. That’s what Michigan was able to do. And we are going to try to do the same. Get the ball into the playmakers’ hands and space and hopefully they can create something special.
Q. Dallas and Bubba, I want to ask you about the back end of the Buckeye defense, what do you think of the guys that will be covering you?
ANDRE CALDWELL: I think they are great athletes, great players. They are some of the best in the country. They could have been at Florida. We won’t see too many weaknesses. It will be a great matchup. We will have to go out there and make some plays and we will have to outplay them that day and may the best man win.
DALLAS BAKER: I feel the same way about the secondary. I think the secondary is pretty solid. They make a lot of plays. They have touchdowns from the secondary, but also I give a lot of credit to our receivers. I mean, we made plays this year. We made plays that had to be made. I think it should be a great matchup between their secondary and our wide receivers.
Q. Coach, when you consider how many guys they did lose and now you look at how solid they are defensively, again, is it more a scheme? Do you think they do things other people don’t? Is it a combination they just replace good players with great players?
COACH MULLEN: I think they have really established their program and when you have that—when you have done that for a couple years like their staff has, they obviously had a lot of depth at every position last year. You know, defensively, they rotate guys in this year. So when their seniors graduate this year, they will have young guys stepping in with a lot of experience next year.
You know, that’s just a tribute to their coaching staff of the balance of establishing their program, where they want it to be, where you have solid depth from top to bottom. And that really allows you to not miss a beat. They don’t have a rebuilding year, they just reload from year to year. And the next great recruiting class steps in and they perform.
Q. Andre, two questions. One, you guys have played in bowl games before and obviously there is a difference getting ready for this. Can the team really feel the difference? There is not a lot of outside Bowl activities. You guys aren’t going to a Busch Gardens like you would in an Outback Bowl. And how many people from Tampa are coming?
ANDRE CALDWELL: This is a lot different. This is strictly a business trip for us. We came out here to have fun, just get ready for the game, prepare to win a game. Not too much fun at all. We are just handling business, trying to come out with a W.
I got all my nearest family coming back, about ten people.
Q. Coach, Ohio State is a top 25 defense. You have played so many of them this year, how much does that help at this juncture and can you compare their defense to any that you face this year?
COACH MULLEN: It helps our guys, I think, when we get out there, they are not going to be shocked by the speed or the power of what’s going on defensively that we have had to play some pretty tough teams. The one you got to watch is the layoff in between. The benefit we have is we have a great defense ourselves. So when we get out there and practice every day, we have to work to try to move the ball against our defense at practice.
So that’s really helped us in this layoff between games.
You know, I really compare them a lot to the LSU defense that we played that when you look out there, you just see a solid group. You know, I think when you game plan, the first thing you do is try to find a weakness to attack a defense. When you look at Ohio State, they have a great defensive front. They have a solid group of linebackers and they have a secondary that makes a bunch of big plays. You don’t see that weakness. At that point you have to execute to move the ball up and down the field. You have to stay on schedule, be very efficient.
When the opportunities are there to make plays, you have to do them. So I probably—just like we had to do against LSU in that game where they had a solid defense from front to back.
Q. What is your biggest concern facing their D?
COACH MULLEN: You know, they don’t give up a lot of big plays. We have been a big-play offense for a lot of this year. You know, they have, obviously, a great front four, is us being able to manage the front four. You have watched them this season. They have a lot of pressure for their front four. We like to get the ball out to these guys’ hands in the perimeter to do that, we need to protect their front four.
Our biggest matchup will be our offensive line, being able to keep us on schedule to run the ball and be able to protect their front four so that if they are getting pressure and they don’t have to blitz us, they can sit back and play coverage, it makes it tougher for us to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands.
Q. Dan, we talked about how you guys are going to attack the secondary in Ohio State. And Tim Beckman, you guys were on the same staff at Bowling Green. You guys know each other well. How much is that going to affect what he thinks you are going to do, what you think he is going to do or does it affect anything at all?
COACH MULLEN: I mean, always a little bit. We had to face him for two years’ worth of practices, spring balls, all that stuff. I think you get a little bit of a feeling for maybe adjustments that he wants to make or how he is going to try to attack our offense, you know, and some of the coverage schemes they will use when we spread things out.
And then you just have to go back and really look at the notes and hit those memory banks a little bit. When you watch film, you say, hey, that’s a definite Tim Beckman thing going on right there (smiling).
How did we attack it a couple years ago in spring practices and find a way to do it. It is a lot of fun to be able to go against somebody, you know, a great coach like that and someone you have gone against in the past.
Q. Dan, by the end of the regular season, your running game, it seems, was almost consisting of Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow. Can you talk about how your offensive package evolved over the season?
COACH MULLEN: One thing, I think, we had some guys get dinged up during the season, the running backs. So we went to kind of a—wanted to spread it out, get the ball to Percy, get the ball to Tim. It didn’t take much to see what Percy can do once he has the ball in his hands in the running game. When we looked at those things, we thought we need to make sure to get the ball in his hands a bunch and see what he can do with it.
I think a lot of our offense evolved, some of the guys being banged up and being injured, when we started giving the ball to some of the other guys, they made a lot of things happen. And players like that can make you a little bit smarter of a coach where we hand the ball to somebody, we flip the ball out to Andre, in the Florida State game, we throw a little bubble screen out to him and you can look smart when he can turn the corner and take it for 60 yards for a touchdown. Or you run a counterplay with Percy and he can make two guys miss and turn it into a big play.
A lot of that scheme has gone around and making sure that we are getting the ball into our best playmakers’ hands as much as possible.
Q. Andre, when you signed with Florida, you were hoping to play in a situation like this. When was it this year when you realize that had this team was good enough to play in the national championship game?
ANDRE CALDWELL: Yeah, that’s the reason I came here. That’s the main reason you go to Florida, to play in the big games, play in the national championship. I always figured we had a great team since I been here. But the whole attitude throughout this off-season had just changed. We weren’t just playing to go to the SEC championship. We were playing for everything, playing for the national championship. With the skilled players and linemen and everybody that was on the team, as hard as we worked, we figured we had a chance. In the off-season, that’s when it all showed off and we knew we had a shot and we can just put everything together and focus for all 13 games, was going to have our chance to get there.
Q. This is for Dallas and Andre, kind of a followup to what Coach was saying about the number of tough defenses you guys faced this year. At the beginning of this season, the tough schedule you had was supposed to be keeping you out of a spot like this. Now, how much of a credit do you think for getting you to a spot like this? How much is it a benefit to play the kind of schedule that you guys had to get here?
DALLAS BAKER: I think it helped. I mean, going against so many top 25 defenses this year. Also, I mean, we can’t take anything away from our defense. I mean, we go against them every day and they are one of the top defenses in the country. When you end up going against a defense like that, it just carries over to the game.
Q. This is for the players. Is there a speed advantage in this game? And if so, which team has it?
DALLAS BAKER: I’m going to go University of Florida. I mean, if you ask us a question, who do you think is going to win, I will be stupid if I said Ohio State. I got to go with us really (smiling).
As far as speed, I would say that’s the thing that makes Ohio State Ohio State. I mean, everybody has this big issue about the Big 10 is very fast. But if you watch Ohio State, I mean, they are just as fast as a team in the SEC. So really this game just comes down to executing our plays.
Q. Got a question for Dallas and Andre. I was wondering if you guys could talk about the development of the true freshmen, Fayson and Harvin, the difference you have seen from fall camp to now?
ANDRE CALDWELL: All throughout fall, they just progressed every day. They came out there, ready to work hard, ready to give everything they got. We took them under our wing and helped them every day, just become a better player. They was always willing to learn and listen.
As you can see, they are out there making plays every week, helping us win games. So they just develop every week and just got better. They are playing at the top of their game.
Q. Andre, you said coming to Florida, this game is one of the reasons you come to Florida. You have seen this program at some pretty low times and you stuck it out through the transition. How difficult was that?
ANDRE CALDWELL: It was pretty difficult ‘cause I didn’t expect it a lot more. I didn’t expect to lose five games and go to the Outback Bowl and lose those games also. It was all very difficult.
We always came together as a team and said we are not satisfied with our situation and we are going to do whatever it takes to get better and get to the SEC championship and hopefully get a national championship.
They were real tough, but we came together as a team. Worked hard as we ever worked in our lives and we’re at a national championship right now.
Q. Coach, I know it is a tough subject, but you learned a couple weeks ago that your friend Kirk was diagnosed with brain cancer. How difficult has it been preparing your team as well knowing that your friend has a big battle ahead of him and is he still planning on being here this week?
COACH MULLEN: He called. He was coming out to the game. You know, it was really tough for that one day. We found out—I found out the same day they announced we were playing in the championship game. But he is a guy you grow up with, that you know your whole life. He is an Ex-Navy Seal. So when you talk to him, you say there is a guy that is ready to fight it. I talked to him yesterday and he said he is doing great and fighting through it, looking forward to coming out here.
He said he is missing the Patriots’ play-off game this weekend because of his flight, so we better put on a good performance for him to have to miss that game.
But he has been in great spirits. A lot of my friends went down to see him. I know a guy that’s as tough as that. He has always been a guy that has inspired me through a lot of things, just the things he goes to. I talk to our strength coach and say, hey, you need to talk to this guy. I will tell you about what the Navy Seals have to do in their everyday training. Maybe we need our players to do some of that to bond that togetherness, that toughness.
So I am just excited to have him come out here and see us play.
Q. Andre and Dallas, both of you, if you could address this. You both have family members that played at the University of Florida that were standouts. Now you are playing in a national championship game. Give me the reaction of, I guess, Andre, your brother, Dallas, your uncle, this stage you are in and have you leaned on them for any advice as you play the biggest game in your life?
DALLAS BAKER: Well, talking to my uncle about it, he told me he was kind of jealous, for one, because I am playing a national championship and, two, I have an opportunity to be in the passing offense. Really, he was just telling us to take every day as it is really ‘cause once it is over, we are going to miss it. Really, the team and especially the wide receivers have been trying to. We have been spending every day together, playing video games, going to the mall. Even making practice fun.
ANDRE CALDWELL: My brother just told me take advantage of the opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by because it go by so quick. Just remember all the good times and just take advantage of it because I got to do something he never ever got to do even though he was in the great offense. He never got to play a national championship and be on the big stage like we are going to be on Monday.
So he told me to take advantage of it. I will always have one up on him playing in this game (smiling).
Q. Coach, Chris Leak has had an up-and-down career at the University of Florida. Does this one single game define him as a quarterback for the Gators?
COACH MULLEN: It does. If you look at Chris, he was thrown in as a true freshmen to play in the Southeastern Conference which is never going to be a great start for anyone in their career. That’s a tough situation to be in.
As he started to gain his experience, he had a change in coaching staff so he had to make an adjustment for that. But I think this season has really been the season you have to define Chris Leak’s career on. It is a chance he now has some experience. He is playing under the same staff, same offense, same coordinator for two years in a row. He has got a chance to really step up, prove himself and the opportunity that I know he was expecting when came to Florida.
So I think this is the season that you really—that his career is going to be defined on this season, nothing prior to this season. And he has done what he wanted to do which was come and win a SEC championship. He led our team to a SEC title this year. And now we have been blessed with the opportunity to have a chance at one more title. I know everybody from him, all of these guys that came into school together, that’s what they want and they are pretty happy they have this opportunity to play for this championship.
Q. Coach, I guess the Ohio State defensive coaches came down to your spring drills. Have you asked maybe to be able to go to practice out here? And what do you think they got from that visit?
COACH MULLEN: (Laughter). They could return the favor. It would be nights if we could send a couple coaches over today and we could watch their practice, maybe it would be a good deal.
They do. I think coaches, a lot of times in the off-season, I mean, you spend time. You look at other staffs that you respect and things that can help. And coaches always get together to talk in the off-season. And I think they—obviously it was a good trip for them. I think they got—you can see some of the pressures they got from this that your our defense runs. We are used to seeing those same pressures every day out of our defense in practice.
But, you know, you never know who you are going to end up playing, especially when you get to a Bowl game. I am sure they will go out and visit people. Our offense, we will go out and visit a staff, some different coaches around the country this year. Who knows, maybe this time next year we are sitting playing that team that we went to visit this spring.
Q. This is for both Dallas and Andre. You guys talked about having fun together as the group. How much fun is this system that Coach Meyer has brought in? Is it a lot like the backyard football where it is the quick hitters open up and run?
ANDRE CALDWELL: Yeah. It is very fun. You get a lot of opportunity to go out there and make plays. You get to touch the ball a lot. You get to do a lot of different things. We just love being in the offense, just being around each other because you are always—we came here to make plays and they give you the opportunity 10, 12 times a game. So you can’t ask for no more than that and it is just a great offense.
Q. Dallas, your career at Florida has kind of been a long and winding road. Will you take us through some of the peaks and valleys and could you have ever dreamed it would end like this?
DALLAS BAKER: At first, no. I didn’t think it would end like this at all really. I thought I would probably not be graduating and probably leaving my career with twelve catches and 100 yards total. I am just happy to be here. Also competing for the national championship and also having a chance to win, I mean, coming from a prep school and now having an opportunity to win a national championship, graduating, I mean, really it is just, I mean, something I will probably write a book about later on.
Q. Guys, can you describe the change in culture that Urban Meyer has brought the last couple years?
DALLAS BAKER: I would say before—having a new coaching staff and having older players going through a new coaching staff, I wouldn’t say it was a bad team to be on. But as far as the leaders, it was kind of tough. Like I said, the older players and the younger players were all going through the same thing. So really you didn’t have anybody to tell you to not do this and not do that because nobody really know what—knew what to expect.
So when Coach Meyer came in, most of the players already went through something like that so really we was just ready to accept anything that he told us to do to become great.
So I think that’s what made the difference.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.