Lost In The Turmoil: Good Practice Week

With all the uproar about the suspension of Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas — and no, there is nothing new on that front today — it is almost as if Saturday’s game with the Kentucky Wildcats has taken a back seat this week. For those interested in the game, Coach Urban Meyer mentioned Thursday that it has actually been a pretty good week of practice.

It was announced Wednesday that Thomas, Florida’s most experienced and best defensive tackle, was suspended indefinitely. He missed the first game of the season because of a failed drug test for marijuana taken earlier in the summer and with the University of Florida’s policy of a one-game suspension for a first offender and 50 percent of the season for a second offense, there has been speculation aplenty that Thomas would be out at least until November. Thursday afternoon after practice Meyer simply said no that nothing has changed and then moved on to questions about Saturday’s game.

Probably the most important news from Thursday’s press briefing was that freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin was running without a boot on his sprained right ankle. Harvin walked off the practice field without the boot but with a slight limp.

Meyer described his activity Thursday as “minimal but we had him running in the stadium before practice so it’s going to be a game-time decision.” He described the injury similar to the one suffered by Dallas Baker last season and added that the goal is to get Harvin ready to play Saturday.

“A lot of people say if you don’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday you don’t play but I’ve never had that rule,” said Meyer. “If you’re healthy you’re going to play if you’re a football player. We’ll try to get something out of him tomorrow [Friday] and then Saturday morning maybe get him up and have him run around a little bit in the stadium. I hope to have him.”

In Harvin’s absence in practice this week, true freshmen Jarred Fayson and Brandon James have been taking some snaps with the first team in the slot receiver position that Harvin’s been running. Before he sprained his ankle against Tennessee, Harvin had one carry for 12 yards and one pass reception for 13. For the season he has seven carries for 81 yards and eight catches for 145 yards and a touchdown.

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Because of bad weather on Tuesday, the Gators didn’t have their usual hard contact practice and that has thrown the practice schedule off somewhat during the week. However, despite the problems with the weather and the team distraction from the situation with Thomas, Meyer said the team has shown its resilience.

“Tuesday’s practice, we had that weather issue and we were bouncing around both inside and outside so that threw us off rhythm a little bit,” said Meyer. “The players did a very nice job of answering it. The good thing about this team so far … football is a bunch of challenges and the way we run our program is a bunch of challenges and we challenged them on Wednesday and we were a day behind and they came out and really went at it.”

The changes in the Tuesday practice routine forced some changes in the way things were done Wednesday and Thursday but Meyer likes the way the team has made up lost ground.

“We’re about caught up and we’re a little behind on special teams because of that Tuesday,” he said. “We’re going to catch up tomorrow. Friday will be a little bit more than we usually do on Friday.”

If there is a silver lining to missing the physical Tuesday practice it could be that the team will have a little more energy and bounce in its step Saturday evening.

“Some people might think of it as a positive,” he said. “Football is a marathon and especially in this conference so maybe lightening up a little bit at this time of the year is not bad either. I wish we had the Tuesday outside but we didn’t but we had a good physical Wednesday.”

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Saturday’s game will match up Kentucky’s outstanding kick and punt return teams against Florida’s outstanding coverage units. Last year the Wildcats accounted for 33 of the 60 total yards the Gators allowed on punt returns.

The Wildcats have two dynamic returners in Rafael Little, who ranks sixth nationally in punt returns at 23.14 yards per return, and Keenan Burton, whose 34 yards per kickoff return average includes a 100-yarder for a touchdown against Louisville in the season opener.

The Gators have given up eight punt return yards (all against Tennessee last Saturday) and an average of just 14.5 yards per kickoff return.

In addition to the dimension that Burton and Little bring to the return games, they are also vital cogs in the Kentucky offense. Burton has caught 12 passes for 242 yards including a 73-yarder for a touchdown. Little has rushed for 166 yards and one touchdown while catching six passes for 87 yards.

“Number 19 [Burton] is probably their best player on the team, their most dynamic guy,” said Meyer. “As a kick returner, he’s one of the best we’ve faced … also very talented, good size at 6-1 and he’s the guy we need to stop to win this game in a lot of areas.”

Meyer knows the Gators have to make sure they bottle up Little on punt returns although it’s not certain at this time if he will be able to play because of an ankle sprain. The Gators have been effective in their punt coverage in part because the funky punt formation Florida runs allows several players to release early to get downfield into coverage.

“With this conference, the traditional punt where you kick, slide kick, kick slide and get held up you’re holding your breath if those gunners don’t make the tackle,” said Meyer. “We usually have three at the minimum, four at the most or five at the most prereleasers getting down the field. Our goal between the snap and the punt is two seconds. If you have good hang time it’s four and a half seconds so it’s six and a half seconds to get down the field. That’s our whole emphasis. Our players should be able to recite that to me — six and a half seconds to force a fair catch and that’s our goal.”

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The Gators will need to get more pressure to stop Kentucky’s very efficient passing game. The Wildcats are averaging 240 yards per game. On the other side of the field from Burton is Dicky Lyons, who has nine catches for 224 yards and six touchdowns so far. Quarterback Andre Woodson has thrown nine touchdown passes and just one interception so far.

Meyer said that the key element for the Gators in stopping the big play passing game of the Wildcats is getting pressure from the front four which will be without Thomas, the team leader with three sacks. The Gators will go with a primary rotation at defensive tackle with Steven Harris, Joe Cohen and Ray McDonald and with Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey at defensive end. Harris will move outside occasionally to give a break to one of the defensive ends.

“Any time when a quarterback doesn’t throw very well the first thing you say is the quarterback is bad,” said Meyer. “Well maybe the protect was bad, maybe the receivers weren’t very good. It’s the same thing with pass defense. We need to get more pressure on that quarterback to help our corners out.”

Tennessee threw for 231 yards on the Gators and there were a few big plays in the passing game. However, the Vols were stuffed in the running game and that stalled the offense. Stuffing the run and pressuring the quarterback will be Florida’s intention this week against Kentucky.

“We were not exactly playing a 1AA school [last week] in Tennessee so you gotta give them credit,” said Meyer. “They have a good team and we kind of made them one-dimensional which is the intent to do against a good, balanced team.”

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Also on the injury front, redshirt freshman guard Ronnie Wilson practiced once again Thursday but he will not play against Kentucky.

“He’s ahead of schedule and he should be able to go next week,” said Meyer. “He’s doing great.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.