The defensive tackle rotation for the Florida Gators just got a whole lot better. Or at least it seems a whole lot better, but this is Wednesday, still three days before the next game. Marcus Thomas and Steven Harris, a couple of seniors that didn’t play last week, are back at practice and Meyer says they’ll play against Central Florida this week. But, that’s not exactly etched in stone.
“They’re officially playing unless they don’t play,” said Coach Urban Meyer Wednesday afternoon. “Let’s see how their behavior is. They’re practicing hard.”
Thomas and Harris didn’t play against Southern Mississippi for reasons that Meyer won’t discuss, leaving the reps to senior Joe Cohen and backups Clint McMillan, a fourth year junior, and Javier Estopinan, a third year sophomore. McMillan and Estopinan saw most of the action as the Gators limited Southern Miss to 119 rushing yards. Florida gave up an average of only 94.9 yards per game in 2005.
While McMillan and Estopinan didn’t get much pressure on the USM quarterback and didn’t have any tackles for loss against the run, Meyer felt the two did an adequate job and gained experience.
“McMillan and Javier hung in there,” said Meyer. “McMillan played like 65 plays … he never played 65 plays combined.”
Saturday’s opponent, UCF, is a typical George O’Leary-coached team which means the Golden Knights will try to pound the ball between the tackles to force the safeties to play run support and then throw over the top once the safeties are drawn in. Meyer said that having Thomas and Harris back in the lineup is critical against “a team that takes pride in running the ball with a physical offensive line.”
What Thomas and Harris can do is collapse the pocket from the inside which forces the opponent to leave its tackles one-on-one against the defensive ends. Southern Miss was able to handle McMillan and Estopinan one-on-one, giving help to the tackles to handle ends Jarvis Moss and Ray McDonald, neither of which registered a sack.
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Meyer said that freshman kick returner Brandon James (knee) is likely to play Saturday as is senior tailback DeShawn Wynn (neck stinger). Redshirt freshman guard Ronnie Wilson and true freshman safety Bryan Thomas will be inactive.
“Brandon James I think is going to go,” said Meyer. “Ronnie Wilson is still a week or two away. DeShawn Wynn should be able to go but he was non-contact again which you worry about that on a Wednesday. Bryan Thomas, about a week away. Percy (Harvin) was sick today. He was not out there but he’s good to go.”
Meyer said he’s not surprised that James has come back so quickly (three weeks) from arthroscopic surgery.
“The little guys (James is 5-7, 175), because there is not so much weight on that knee, come back a lot faster than the big guys,” he said. Meyer said that James will be used as a kick returner for now but eventually he will be used as a running back.
Wynn’s status has hastened the development of freshman tailback Mon Williams. Meyer indicated that Williams will most likely see his first playing time against UCF.
“Mon Williams is the guy we have to make a decision on and right now I would say the anticipation is that he’s going to play a little bit Saturday,” said Meyer, who said that Williams had a good Monday practice and a below average Tuesday practice before bouncing back with a good effort on Wednesday.
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Williams wasn’t the only one that had an improved practice day on Wednesday. Meyer felt the entire team improved and said the weather was a help. Tuesday’s temperatures and humidity made for a muggy, tough day. It was a little bit cooler Wednesday.
“Today was much, much better,” said Meyer. “Yesterday was not very good at all. Today was better, much more focused and the weather cooperated. This darn weather saps you and those kids have to learn to fight through that.”
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Due to the new NCAA rules about starting the time clock, the Gators were limited to 59 offensive plays in the opener, down 11 from what they averaged per game in 2005. Meyer felt that the Gators got to the line of scrimmage quickly but there were still some times when the officials let the clock start a bit early.
“I thought we did a decent job,” said Meyer. “I did call the SEC Head of Officials. I want to say 6-7 times we were at the line of scrimmage waiting and they cranked it. The way I understand it is that they have to give the defense time to set up. We lost six seconds every time they did that so that’s another 36-40 seconds but other than that I thought our guys did a pretty good job of getting out there and going.”
While the new speed up rules could benefit the Gators late in some ball game when the opponent can’t line up properly, Meyer said he prefers the old way with more plays for his offense. The Gators averaged 6.6 yards per play against Southern Miss on 59 plays. In 2005, when the Gators averaged just 373.4 yards per game, Florida averaged 70 plays per game. That would translate to more than 460 yards and perhaps at least one more score against Southern Miss with the extra 11 plays.
“I kind of like looking at it the other way…ka ching, kaching, kaching,” he said.
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Questioned once again why he went for a long fourth down in the third quarter rather than let Chris Hetland attempt a 47-yard field goal, Meyer said it was not from a lack of confidence in Hetland, whom he said can hit from that distance. Rather than try the field goal, Meyer called for a pass play that never materialized because quarterback Chris Leak was sacked.
“I felt that Dallas Baker and Chris Leak would hit that pass,” he said.
At that point in the game, the Gators held a 14-7 lead over Southern Miss and Meyer felt confident the way his defense was playing.
“I kind of felt squeezed by time and I wanted to score,” said Meyer. “I was looking at the clock and thinking, doggone it let’s get this thing going.”
Leak and Baker combined for nine completions and 123 yards during the game, but they never got a chance to make the pass play Meyer called work because Leak was sacked. The Gators turned the ball back over to Southern Miss on the 40 but Meyer wasn’t worried about that.
“I never felt like they had the speed on the outside to beat us,” he said. “If we’re playing great defense and the team we’re playing doesn’t have the explosiveness that can get by you I’ll take chances on fourth down.”
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Meyer doesn’t have a vote in the coaches’ poll nor does he want one. He said if he had been offered one while he was at Utah, that would have been a different story altogether.
“I had an opportunity to have one [vote in the poll] when I first got here, but I’ve got a lot of stuff to do and that’s not one of them,” said Meyer. “It’s not worth it at all to me. We play in the SEC and if we take care of business I don’t have to worry about votes in polls. If I was still at the other place [Utah], I would have taken that spot in a minute and gotten us some points.”
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Wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzales said Florida’s young receivers are starting to step it up in practice. He likes the development he’s seeing in this group. Right now, freshman Percy Harvin is going to be on the field a lot, but Gonzales is plenty confident in younger players like true freshmen Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper, redshirt freshman David Nelson and sophomores Louis Murphy and Nyan Boateng.
“I think they’ve all stepped it up little by little,” said Gonzales. “They’re getting more confident in what they’re doing but they still all have to learn to fire out a little bit quicker each time they’re on the field and the ball is snapped.”
Gonzales said there is plenty of work done each day on fundamentals and extra time is spent learning to block.
“It’s the small things they have to learn to do consistently if they’re going to get on the field and play,” he said.
Gonzales said nobody should write off Nelson, Boateng and Murphy for making contributions this year.
“They’re going to get their chances,” he said. “Murphy is a guy that’s been hurt and today [Wednesday] was the first day that he’s taken reps in a while. Boateng is making strides and he has to become more consistent. He can’t be up and down. David Nelson is getting better. He’s getting more consistent and playing better. I like what I see of all three of those guys. They are all going to play.”