The surprise Sunday night when Florida’s veterans reported for their first preseason practice was the appearance of senior defensive tackle Steven Harris. Harris dressed out and participated in the Sunday evening session and although Coach Urban Meyer says he’s not 100 percent back with the team, the fact that he was practicing is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
Harris was suspended from the team back in the spring for what Meyer termed personal reasons. In the months since spring practice there has been speculation that the personal problems were both family and academically related. A week ago at a Gator Gathering in Jacksonville, Meyer said that Harris had one class that he had to pass to earn his bachelor’s degree in the summer term.
“I don’t want to say he’s back full time,” said Meyer after Sunday evening’s practice. “He’s still got some academic things to take care of. It’s good to see him out here though and we’re still working through some things so it’s not 100 percent back yet.”
Asked if things would be fully cleared up in a day or two, Meyer responded by saying “it’s going to take longer than that,” adding that the family issues that Harris has to deal with are lifetime in scope. Meyer also mentioned that before Harris can be fully reinstated, “he’s got to earn the trust back.” Asked if that was trust of teammates and coaches, Meyer said it was all of the above.
“He’s got to deal with some family issues that we’re trying to help him with,” said Meyer. “It’s good to see him out here, though.”
Harris is a 6-4, 290-pounder that started every game at defensive tackle in 2005. His return would add depth to Florida’s defensive line, already considered one of the best in the nation. With Harris, Florida’s four-man defensive tackle rotation would include Marcus Thomas, Clint McMillan and Joe Cohen.
* * *
One of the highlights of the practice was watching punter Eric Wilbur during the special teams drills. Wilbur spent the early part of last season adjusting to new punt formations and the different approach to the punting game and special teams demanded by Meyer. He’s fully adjusted now and he’s hitting the ball better than ever.
Wilbur launched several long punts that were well over 60 yards Sunday evening and he hit at least three of the 70-75 yard variety. Even the punts he didn’t exactly hit cleanly were traveling 40-plus yards.
Placekicker Chris Hetland worked Sunday evening as the backup punter. He hit about three very nice punts but had problems getting the ball high in the air consistently and had three or four shanks.
Steven Harris at tonight’s practice…
Florida ranked among the nation’s best teams last year in net punting. The Gators gave up only 61 net punt return yards in 12 games and 33 of those were given up against Kentucky.
* * *
Earlier in the day Meyer said that wide receiver Bubba Caldwell will be brought along carefully in the preseason drills. Caldwell broke his leg last year against Tennessee. He was held out of contact drills in the spring.
Sunday evening, Caldwell ran crisp pass routes and showed that there are no lingering after-effects at least when it comes to his speed. On a couple of crossing routes he turned on the jets and left defensive backs in the dust.
Caldwell is listed at 202 pounds, but he looks much bigger in the upper body than at any time since he’s been at Florida.
* * *
This is the last rodeo for running back DeShawn Wynn, the always long on potential but not so long on production senior from Cincinnati. The 5-11, 230-pounder led Florida in rushing last year with 621 yards including a career-high game of 109 in the Gators’ win over Georgia. For his career, he’s gained 1,378 yards.
The questions with Wynn have always centered around physical conditioning and desire. He’s had a lot of nagging injuries and never has appeared to be in tip-top shape. Also, he’s never been known as much of a practice player.
There are still questions about his ability to stay healthy and his willingness to play hard every down, but physical conditioning shouldn’t be a problem again. He looks like the heavyweight champion of the world. To an already stocky lower body, Wynn has made impressive muscle gains in his upper body.
We’ll know more in a couple of weeks after the pads go on, but Wynn certainly looks the part of the big time running back for now.
* * *
Reggie Nelson worked out some at cornerback last year when two-a-days began before settling in as a nickel back and safety. With Florida’s depth issues at cornerback this year, Nelson may spend the entire year at corner. He’s bulked up to an impressive 195 now and is the most physically impressive defensive back on the Florida roster.
He had several good moments in coverage in passing drills Sunday night but his best effort resulted in a breakup of a pass intended for David Nelson over the middle. Nelson ran a nice route and appeared to have a step and a half but Reggie broke on the ball and got both hands out to deflect Chris Leak’s throw, which had plenty of zip and was on the money.
Nelson looked smooth and comfortable in one-on-one coverage drills. He got beaten once by Jemalle Cornelius when he stumbled a little bit on the cut but otherwise his coverage was outstanding.
Also looking very sharp in the coverage drills was cornerback Reggie Lewis. Lewis started the last three games of the season last year and enters this season as Florida’s most experienced and dependable corner.
* * *
Both Leak and freshman Tim Tebow had plenty of nice throws in the one-on-one and seven-on-seven passing drills. Leak looked comfortable and decisive throwing the ball on the move. Tebow’s best throws were on long out patterns where he had to put plenty of zip on the ball.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver David Nelson put together one of his best practices ever as a Gator. He had a sensational diving catch of a Leak pass on an out pattern and beat defenders three times on deep balls, two of them from Tebow and one from Leak.
Sophomore Nyan Boateng made a nice move to get open on a deep ball. He’s showing that there are no longer any problems with his ankle. Boateng had lingering soreness in his ankle last year. He missed his senior season in high school with a broken ankle.
Kenneth Tookes made one outstanding move to get open to catch a deep ball from Leak. Cornelius and Dallas Baker also had a couple of very nice catches.