Gator Musings for 2007…

The New Year wouldn’t be complete without the usual drab column that waxes on endlessly about the year that was “insert here”. 2006 ranks among the greatest years in University of Florida sports history, but you already knew that. So, let’s consider a few positives about 2007.

This past week I asked Florida offensive line coach John Hevesy about the additional work the reserves are getting with the Gators bowl preparation. He acknowledged its’ importance and said teams participating in bowl games are getting richer with those additional practice sessions.

Kentucky must feel as though they stormed Fort Knox.

Certainly the win over Clemson was huge for the Wildcats self-esteem. After all they hadn’t even been to a bowl game since 1999. Furthermore, Kentucky hadn’t tasted victory in a bowl setting since defeating Wisconsin 20-19 in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

How long ago was that?

Well, the University of Florida had just won its’ first ever Southeastern Conference championship with heralded freshman Kerwin Bell utilizing the superior skills position talents of John L. Williams, Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton, Ricky Nattiel, and Frankie Neal. All made possible courtesy of the best offensive line in school history- The Great Wall of Florida.

A superb defense that is still considered among the best in Florida football history with Tim Newton, Alonzo Johnson, Pat Miller, Mark Korff, and Jarvis Williams.

On October 20th of that year, the Gators hammered the University of Cincinnati Bearcats 48-17. A young defensive back named Urban Meyer made his first official visit to Florida Field and remembered the sweltering Florida heat and scores of beautiful young co-eds cheering on the Gators. Yes, it all happened in the year made famous by George Orwell- “1984”.

Lost in the Wildcats 28-20 victory over the Tigers (and it wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate) were those all-important additional practice sessions. Rather than hang the gear up after dropping a November 25th regular season ending contest to Tennessee- the ‘Cats were (finally) able to secure much needed work until the end of December.

What’s not to practice? Kentucky had the nation’s 118th ranked defense- only Louisiana Tech was worse. But, this will tremendously benefit the 2007 Wildcats. This is a young Kentucky football team. They started only six seniors against Clemson. Furthermore, there were only eight seniors listed among the two-deep before the start of the season. This is very good for the Southeastern Conference.

2007 will seemingly be very similar for Urban Meyer and Pat McMahon. Both will have lots of new faces in starting positions. That is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball for Coach Meyer.

If Jarvis Moss and Brandon Siler were to opt for early entry into the NFL, the Gators would have to replace their entire front seven. We already knew the burden of strength of the team would fall upon Urban Meyer’s dink and dunk, finesse, toy offense that, oh by the way, helped the Gators win the Eastern Division, Southeastern Conference championship, and secure a spot in the BCS National Championship Game in only its’ second year.

Still, the critical geniuses who maintain that Meyer’s offensive scheme is but a mere fluke will return in ’07 with their updated overview. Possibly minutes after Florida wraps up the college football season against Ohio State they’ll question…everything Florida. But, who cares? If you’ve followed the recruiting trail then you understand there is no void of talent. That coupled with a superb coaching staff can usually get players into position to make plays.

Welcoming Pat McMahon and the Florida baseball team into their sparkling new facilities will hopefully be on everybody’s priority list. Florida’s recent recruiting class was ranked 3rd in the nation and McMahon expects the new facility will be a “significant factor” in recruiting. The Gators completed their 23 fall practice sessions and came away impressed with several of the 15 newcomers.

The return of 2005 SEC Player of the Year Matt LaPorta figures to provide a huge lift in showing the way for these new faces. He’s already off to a fast start. LaPorta hit a home run in his final at bat in the Orange and Blue World Series, a series of games that serve to officially conclude fall drills. His team was down one run and LaPorta came through with the big hit.

With the exception of first base the entire Florida infield is a battle that will resume when practice resumes in a few weeks. Former Tallahassee Lincoln shortstop Cole Figueroa made an immediate impact in the fall drills. McMahon said that five players will fight for the third base spot, including Brandon McArthur.

Right fielder Brian Leclerc is the only returning starter in the outfield and he must improve on his 2006 numbers. You’ll also see wide receiver/gunner Riley Cooper fighting for a spot in the Florida outfield.

Pitcher Bryan Augenstein played with the USA National Team. He was 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 7.1 innings. Sophomores Chas Spottswood and J.K. LaCoste played for the Altamonte Springs Snappers of the Florida Wood Bat League. Spottswood led the league with a 1.02 ERA, while LaCoste held batters to a .193 average in six appearances.

There are a ton of new faces, which should make it exciting to see McMahon and company rebuild after a tremendously disappointing season.

Former Florida All-American Lawrence Wright told me a few months ago that he still makes an effort to stay in excellent shape in hopes that he’ll get a call from an NFL team looking for some help at strong safety. Maybe he should place a call to the 813 area code. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have allowed 25 touchdowns through the air this season and anybody who has watched the play at safety can tell you that it is far from spectacular.

One player who would perfectly fit in Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s Cover Two if he were to make himself available is Reggie Nelson. Savvy, fast, athletic, punishing, and solid in the open field are just a few of the glowing descriptions used to describe Nelson. The Buccaneers have had a premier performer at strong safety in John Lynch, but have never had a guy with Nelson’s overall skills. Then again, what team couldn’t use a guy like Reggie Nelson.

Please keep Reggie, his family, and circle of friends in your thoughts and prayers. Anybody who has lost a parent certainly understands what he is going through. The end of the season will leave him plenty of time to reflect and that is when he will need your prayers, wishes, and words of encouragement the most.

Have a terrific 2007. Go Gators!!