Haden and defense step up their games

Joe Haden’s trip to Lexington for the Kentucky game was a little different than he expected. Instead of flying with the entire team for a road game, Haden flew up later on a separate plane with three of his teammates.

Haden made the trek with Tim Tebow, Major Wright and Riley Cooper. The four were forced to fly separately because of an upper respiratory issue.

It was different than any other road game. Instead of being confined to their individual seat because the rest of the team was on the plane, each player could have had 10 rows to himself.

“We had a little more room than normal,” Haden said with a smile.

The flight was also different based on how they occupied themselves. Usually casual conversations are happening and players are listening to music, but this time, Tebow forced the Florida players to play a game.

“Tebow had us playing some silly little games,” Haden said, almost embarrassed to admit it. “He had us playing this name game where everybody had to say a name and if you stuttered you were out.”

But once the plane landed and the players unloaded, the situation wasn’t as much fun. The players still didn’t feel good and were struggling with the sickness that had been passed around the team.

Once warmups started at Commonwealth Stadium, head coach Urban Meyer gave Haden an option. He could play if he wanted to, but it wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t up to it.

“I wasn’t feeling too good, but I thought I could play through it,” Haden said. “Coach Meyer told me that if I didn’t want to play it was no big deal. I was feeling good enough to play though.”

The sickness is now out of Haden and his teammates. Most players struggled with it for two or three days, and there aren’t many players struggling with it anymore.

“I’m good now,” Haden said. “It’s all out. Everybody’s getting a lot better. I think it just swept through us that week.”

While Florida players being sick before the game was the issue on everyone’s mind, it was soon moved to the back burner after Tebow suffered a concussion in the third quarter following a sack by Kentucky Taylor Wyndham that sent Tebow’s helmeted head into the knee of right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

What was a joyous attitude on the bench, thanks to a 31-7 score at that time, quickly changed.

“I was scared for him,” Haden said. “I thought something happened to his neck when I saw him just laying there.”

The concern from the Gator Nation was to be expected. The star quarterback, arguably one of the best players in college football history, is hurt and his status remains unknown for one game that has been circled as a possible stumbling point in Baton Rouge next Saturday.

But it’s the national attention that sometimes makes Haden shake his head. The perception nationally is that the Gators are in trouble without Tebow, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in the players’ minds. They recognize the talent and leadership that Tebow offers the team, but Haden claims they are still relaxed in the locker room.

“It’s way different,” Haden said. “The media attention with Tebow’s concussion is way worse than it is within the team. Everybody knows Tebow and we feel like he’s going to be back and ready to play.”

The main reason the Florida players feel confident is the way the defense performed at Kentucky. However, the defense wouldn’t have looked the way it did in Lexington if it wasn’t for a film session that occurred after the Tennessee game. The defensive coaches flipped on the film to show the players what was missing. The 2008 defense had players flying to the football and making plays, which were two things that looked to be missing earlier this season.

“It made us look at each other and reevaluate what we were doing,” Haden said of that film session. “It made us look at how we were playing last year. We were playing faster last year than we were in the first few games.”

The sense of playing to prove others wrong had been lost. It was easy to play like that in 2008. The 2007 defense was so bad, the doubts and questions were all around what it would look like during 2008. That fueled offseason workouts and practices, making the Gators want to prove everyone wrong. They did, of course, winning the national championship.

Then came the 2009 season with the entire defensive two-deep rotation returning. Haden admitted that the defense got a little full of itself.

“We played fast last year because nobody thought we were good at all,” Haden said. “This year we already knew we were a good defense so we weren’t really playing with a chip on our shoulder.”

With the doubts about Tebow playing next Saturday in Baton Rouge, one of the options the Florida coaches could use is pulling Haden into the backfield for some snaps at quarterback like what was talked about before the season started. It hasn’t been talked about as of now.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Haden said with a smile. “I’m trying to work on (LSU starting wide receiver Brandon) LaFell.”

That will be a tall enough task in itself.