It is an imposing task for Florida’s cornerbacks this weekend in Knoxville when they go one-on-one with a pair of the biggest, strongest wide receivers the Gators will go against this season. Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain have the kind of size and speed to turn any game into a nightmare for the guys in charge of the coverage.
Meachem, who is 6-3, 210, is second in the NCAA with 148.5 yards per game. The big junior has caught 13 passes for 297 yards (22.85 per catch) and four touchdowns. The man on the other side is Swain, a 6-1, 205-pound senior. He’s caught eight passes for 139 yards (17.38 per catch) and two touchdowns.
While both of them have the speed to go deep, what is impressive with their stats after two games is the way they are turning short passes into big gainers. That’s something that has caught the attention of Florida Coach Urban Meyer.
“They’re big, strong, physical guys and a lot of those big plays against Cal [game one] were six yard throws where the corners fell off of them because they’re big, strong, fast players,” said Meyer.
In that game against Cal (35-18 Tennessee win), Meachem had touchdown catches of 42 and 80 yards and Swain had one go the distance for 50 yards. Neither of them broke a long touchdown against Air Force in game two, but Meachem caught two more touchdown passes and Swain caught one more.
Meachem had 182 pass receiving yards in the first game and he followed that up with 115 in game two. Meachem has 67 career catches for 10 touchdowns while Swain has 84 career catches for six touchdowns.
The size and speed of the Tennessee wide receivers has to be a concern for Meyer whose corners aren’t exactly the biggest guys in the world. Reggie Lewis starts on one side at 5-10, 195 pounds with Ryan Smith (5-9, 165 on the other). The third corner in the rotation is 5-8, 183-pound Tremaine McCollum. The size of the Vol receivers may require that Reggie Nelson will see some action at corner. Meyer would prefer to have Nelson at free safety but he’s quite capable of covering a wide receiver and he’s got the size (6-1, 195) and the speed.
Meyer is equally concerned with Florida’s corners having the strength to wrestle down the Tennessee receivers once they catch the ball so extra emphasis has been placed on tackling in Monday and Tuesday’s practice sessions.
“We’ve been working on tackling,” said Meyer. “We did a little extra repetition with our corners tackling today. Their [Tennessee’s] biggest asset is their big, strong, physical receivers and then people fell right off of them and then they have great speed on top of that.”
The receivers have been helped by the pinpoint accuracy of quarterback Erik Ainge, leading the NCAA in passing efficiency after a year that he’d probably like to forget. After a great freshman season, Ainge came back as a sophomore last year to complete less than 50 percent of his passes. He threw more interceptions (7) than he did touchdowns (5).
That has changed this year under the guidance of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe who replaced Randy Sanders in the offseason. Cutcliffe was at Tennessee when Peyton Manning played for the Vols. In 2005, Ainge threw for 737 yards. He already has 624 this year. Ainge is 35-47 with seven touchdown passes through two games and he’s only thrown two picks. He’s averaging an astonishing 13.28 yards per pass attempt.
“I think he’s leading the NCAA in efficiency and last year obviously at this time he was really struggling,” said Meyer. “They were a mess at quarterback last year and I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country right now.”
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Meyer put the Gators through a tough, physical practice Tuesday. He liked what he saw and said he should start seeing the practices get more emotional as the week unfolds.
“They’re not all worried about the hip hip hooray and all that yet,” said Meyer. “Tomorrow we’ll have a little more juice and energy. I just talked to our coaches and you’d like to see a little bit more of it but these cats are just trying to get through practice so tomorrow we’ll see more of it and then Thursday a lot more. We have to be ready Saturday at 8 o’clock and not Tuesday at 4 o’clock.”
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DeShawn Wynn went through Tuesday’s hard day in pads which is good news for the Florida running game. Still battling through the soreness of a neck stinger suffered in the first game of the season against Southern Mississippi, Wynn knows he’s got to give a big effort for the Gators against Tennessee. The team that has rushed for the most yardage has won 14 of the last 16 games between the two teams.
“He’s practicing full speed,” said Meyer, who said that Wynn dinged the shoulder a little bit. “He battled through it today so he should be ready to go.”
In two games, Wynn has carried 16 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore tailback Kestahn Moore has 15 carries for 78 yards and one touchdown.
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The Gators were a perfect 6-0 at home last season but they were 3-3 away from The Swamp. Florida was actually 8-0 in the state of Florida and 1-3 in games outside of the state. Florida’s only road win last year was over lowly Kentucky. Meyer knows that the Gators have to prove that they can win big games on the road before they can move to the next level.
“I think championship teams have to win on the road,” he said. “I don’t know of any team that ever won a championship without beating a quality opponent on the road.”
Last year the Gators dug themselves into a deep hole in losses at Alabama, LSU and South Carolina, falling behind in the first quarter of each game. Meyer says the Gators have to prove they can handle adversity because last year they didn’t measure up in that category. Through two games, Florida has trailed only 7-0 in game one and the Gators haven’t trailed in a game since the first quarter of that first contest.
“The only adversity we’ve reached so far is in two a days that were extremely hard and then falling behind Southern Miss at home,” he said. “That was the first time we’ve trailed [since Meyer has been the UF coach] in our stadium. I saw some resiliency but we haven’t seen the adversity that you see during the season yet. I’m sure we’ll see it Saturday.”