You could call this Jimmy Buffett Week when the Florida Gators take to the practice field Monday morning because over the next seven days there will definitely be some changes in attitudes and changes in latitudes. Attitudes have not been bad — far from it; they’ve been outstanding — but with a season opener in less than 14 days there will be a brand new sense of urgency.
You’ll see urgency in a Florida coaching staff that has critical personnel decisions to make and there are only seven more practices before the Gators start their game-week preparations for Southern Miss. You’ll see it in players that are battling for a starting position or a place on the two-deep charts. They know there are only so many practice sessions remaining to impress the staff that they’re game-ready.
So attitudes will definitely change and that should usher in a seven-day run of high intensity practices where every single move made by every single player is under the microscope of a staff that understands how critical it is for the Gators to get off to a good start against a team that is not the usual first game cannon fodder variety. Southern Miss is generally a very well coached team and the Golden Eagles have this nasty habit of going on the road where they play ranked teams very tough.
Coach Urban Meyer says the only thing he’s focusing in on is that first game with Southern Miss. He says he isn’t paying much attention to the other 11 games on the schedule. While that may be true, you can also know that he is very much aware of every team on Florida’s schedule. He knows the difficulty factor of a schedule that features eight teams that went to bowls last year and a Tennessee team that will be trying its dead level best to make fans forget about a very un-Tennessee like 5-6.
When your track meet of a schedule includes a four-game stretch of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia over five weeks, you can’t afford to false start against Southern Miss. Meyer knows just how important it is for the Gators to not only get a win in game one, but to play at a level that creates momentum going into game two with a Central Florida team that believes it belongs among the big boys and then a roadie to Knoxville where the Volunteers will be trying to make an early season statement. If the Gators come out of game one needing to spend more time correcting mistakes than they do preparing for game two, it will be a very bad omen.
The momentum that Meyer needs won’t start with that Southern Miss game, however. The momentum begins in practice Monday morning. He needs every practice in the next week to be a gut check for his entire team but there are four positions that will be the barometer for success — offensive right tackle, the corner opposite Reggie Lewis, SAM linebacker and tailback.
Meyer has four offensive linemen ready to go — center Steven Rissler, guards Jim Tartt and Drew Miller and left tackle Phil Trautwein. He can go to war with those guys but he has yet to find a warrior for that right tackle spot now that Miller has had to move inside to compensate for the injury to Ronnie Wilson.
This is the week where somebody has to show enough want-to to grab a starting role at right tackle. Meyer needs to see changes in attitudes and changes in latitudes from Carlton Medder, Jason Watkins or Carl Johnson. Medder’s a fourth-year junior and experience left the door wide open for him to step on through to the other side but so far he hasn’t made a statement that this right tackle is his job for the keeping. Watkins has enormous size and potential but the gap between potential and actual performance often spans the globe more than ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
That leaves us with the Slim Fast version of Carl Johnson, down a mere 45 pounds since the spring when he discovered that he can actually eat more food than ever before as long as he substitutes good stuff for pizza, ribs, double cheeseburgers and industrial size fries. Johnson said he ran with the first unit at right tackle in both Saturday sessions. Can he adjust the attitude and the learning curve enough this week to leave his elders behind at right tackle?
Meyer needs to find a reliable corner opposite Reggie Lewis so that Reggie Nelson, the team’s best athlete, can move back to free safety and play the nickel position when the Gators have to go five DBs. If Nelson is freed up from playing the corner, then suddenly Florida’s secondary leaves the question marks behind and becomes a team strength.
Ryan Smith is the obvious choice to be the man at corner. The Utah transfer has strung together several very good practices and he has the advantage of college game experience, but even Smith admits the speed of the game that he’s seeing just in practice is vastly superior to what he saw in the Mountain West Conference. He’s also never played in an arena quite like The Swamp. He wouldn’t be the first one whose eyes become big as Frisbees when he runs out on the playing field and 90,000 fans erupt. Tremaine McCollum has proven to be an invaluable performer on special teams but he’s never played more than a handful of plays at corner. This is the week that Smith and/or McCollum have to prove that they’re game ready.
Meyer needs to see continued changes in attitudes and changes in latitudes from Brian Crum at strong side (SAM) linebacker. Crum is the perpetual body by Tarzan, game by Jane type. There aren’t many Gators with more speed, strength and athletic skills than Crum but a four-year Florida football resume that should read like a dissertation instead reads like haiku. If the game catches up to the body, then Meyer can afford to pick and choose his spots for redshirt freshman Ryan Stamper and true freshmen Brandon Spikes, A.J. Jones and Dustin Doe as the backup linebackers. Crum has shown plenty of improvement in practice so far, but this is the week he needs to put an end to all doubts and prove he can play Division I football.
We shouldn’t even be having this discussion about DeShawn Wynn. Gator fans that have held their breaths waiting for a repeat performance of the 2003 Miami game turned blue, passed out and were carted away by the paramedics long ago. The rest of us just got bored waiting.
So here we are in year five of the DeShawn Wynn Gator Experience and we’re needing changes in attitudes and changes in latitudes.
There is something about the makeup of this Florida team and the way that Urban Meyer and his staff approach things that make you feel that someone will step up at right tackle, that a cornerback will be found opposite Reggie Lewis and that Brian Crum will finally put it all together at linebacker. There is no such assurance at tailback where Wynn could be and should be the man.
Kestahn Moore looks good when he’s in there but he missed the spring with a bad back so nobody is really counting on him to stay healthy if he has to carry the ball 20 times a game. Markus Manson hasn’t shown that he’s capable of staying on his feet if an opponent breathes on him and the other three tailbacks are unproven freshmen, none of which has really distinguished himself as an every down kind of guy.
So that brings us back to DeShawn Wynn and his 1,378 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns to go with 29 catches, 318 yards and three scores. You look at his body and you wonder why those aren’t single season numbers and not three-year totals. There are flashes of brilliance in games and practices that let you know he could have a season like that if only he would turn it on. Then there is the rest of the time when he disappears and stays disappeared for a long, long time.
Watching the Gators you get the feeling that if Brandon Siler’s leg were chain sawed nearly in two that he would make a tourniquet out of barbed wire and play with an IV bag hanging out of his arm. You get the feeling that if DeShawn Wynn wakes up in the morning with a hang nail that he’s half speed for the next two weeks.
It’s time for Wynn to make that step from enigma to dependable, proven commodity. He is the one Gator that needs to show a once and for all change in attitudes, change in latitudes this week. Football is a team game so it’s tough to hinge the success of an entire season on the shoulders of one player. If DeShawn Wynn rolls snake eyes in this his final fling, that doesn’t say the Florida Gators can’t make a run at a Southeastern Conference championship. But let’s say he does put it all together. Let’s say he does come to play every play, every day, every game. Would you bet against the Gators if Wynn emerges from this week with the attitude and determination to carry the Gators at this position that Urban Meyer says is critical to the success of the Florida offense?
Can you imagine the kind of emotional lift DeShawn Wynn could give this entire football team if he is the one that plays harder and tougher than anyone else during this next week? Can you imagine what could happen if he would sustain that attitude for an entire season? One major change in one attitude could change the latitude of an entire football team. Making that attitude change a permanent part of the landscape could give an entire football team the momentum it needs to win a championship.