The dynamics of the player/coach relationship have changed dramatically over the past two decades. Senior defensive lineman Ray McDonald suggests that relationship took an upward turn on the University of Florida campus the moment Urban Meyer assumed control just over a year and half ago.
“More than ever,” McDonald said with a broad smile and laugh after I asked how often he drops by the coaches offices, as opposed to two years ago. It was not a question to further insult former Coach Ron Zook- that bus has been driven.
Meyer has stated repeatedly that the relationship between the coach and his players is a key component to winning championships and the golden ring that accompanies it.
“I just stopped by Coach (Greg) Mattison’s office yesterday with him and Coach (Charlie) Strong and sat and talked with them,” McDonald said. “We’ve been to Coach Meyer’s office a few times. That closeness with the coaches is there, more than it was two years ago. We’re a lot more closer to the coaches.”
In Hoover, Meyer once again talked about bringing the Gators back. All of them.
He spoke about the pre-season cookout where former Gators are implored to return to campus. He talked about a tunnel made up of former Gators for the first game. He even described what exactly should occur when a former Florida player walks into a coach’s office- drop everything and take the time to welcome that Gator back to campus.
Meyer’s appreciation for their efforts certainly isn’t lost on Ray McDonald. After all, his father Ray was a Florida wide receiver in the Charley Pell/Galen Hall era.
“It’s real important to me, because you know, I’ve been a Gator fans since I was a little boy,” he continued. “Seeing guys like Ellis Johnson come back and talk to us and show me things that I can do. And DT, Dwayne Thomas, he came back and talked to us. Terry Jackson, he was over there. Donnie Young. It’s a great feeling to have guys that we know we’re winners when they were here, come and talk to us. We know that they know what it takes to win. When they talk to us, it means something.”
As the media surrounded first team All-Southeastern Conference quarterback Chris Leak four deep on the opposite side of the room- McDonald seemed perfectly at ease with a dozen or so writers asking questions. The first of those questions obviously surrounded his health.
Surgery was required to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees.
The first surgery was performed in early December, the second a little over a month later. McDonald fought through a painful rehabilitation process that required him to work with the UF trainers at seven o’clock every morning. The rehabilitation sessions usually lasted two hours. He wasn’t able to toss the crutches until mid-January.
“It’s been real hard coming off the surgeries, but we have a great strength and conditioning staff,” he said. “They really helped push me at times when I thought that I wasn’t going to make it. It’s been a real challenge for me this past season. But, I feel a lot bigger and stronger than I did a year ago.”
“I just always thought that this is making me a better person,” McDonald recalled. “Strong. It makes me a mentally and physically better person. So, I just thought about that every time. I thought, “Man, I don’t want to go in here and do this”. I just thought about my parents at home and how everybody kept trying to help me and push me. That’s what really motivated me to get up and do it every morning.”
Ray McDonald surrounded at SEC Media Days
McDonald wasn’t totally alone in the rehab process. Fellow defensive lineman Marcus Thomas has spent his share of time with the Florida trainers, strengthening his back. Did they lean on each other during the rehabilitation sessions?
“Yeah, we did,” McDonald said. “Both of us were hurt. One of us has to heal faster than the other, because we both can’t be out. We did come lean on each other and talk about what we’ve got to do to get back on the field. We’re doing that now and both of us are healthy- probably as healthy as we’ve been since we’ve been at Florida.”
“I’m one-hundred percent,” he added. “From the first day of practice, I’ll be one-hundred percent. I was a hundred percent a few weeks ago. I feel really great about my knees and how I’m going to play this year.”
McDonald’s motivation came from those who root for him. Those who help him. Those who love him.
His long term goal is just as simple- a championship. A December visit to the Georgia Dome would be as welcome as a cold front during two-a-days. However, the Gators have been a program without a Southeastern Conference championship since 2000.
“That’s the way it used to be,” he said referring to the many titles won during the Spurrier era. “But, we weren’t playing like that the past few years. Coach Meyer is trying to a new system to the University of Florida. We just have to step up there and play hard for him.”
“You can never go back to college and try to get a ring,” he stated. “You have to make moments out of the time that you’re here in college. We need a ring bad this year. I’m a senior. I want to win a championship. I don’t want to regret being in college for four years and not having a ring for the rest of my life.”
The Belle Glade native believes this might just be the year the Gators drop in on Atlanta. He is excited about the Florida defense, particularly the defensive front.
“Since I’ve been at Florida, we’ve never had any depth on the D-Line,” he said. “This is one of those years that we have about six to eight guys that can really come in and back us up. I’m real comfortable about the D-Line and I’m real happy about the depth that we have. It pushes us a lot more. In the past we didn’t have that depth on the D-Line, so now we work a little harder.”
To secure a ring, McDonald and the Gators will have to reverse a trend that began two years ago- winning on the road. Meyer addressed that topic as well during media days. Florida lost three games in 2005. Three road games within the conference.
“We were undefeated at home this past season, but we have to be undefeated on the road,” McDonald confirmed. “A road victory is a big victory. You can always win at home, but it’s hard when you’re on the road and try to beat teams.”
“We just have to prepare a lot harder- know who were playing, prepare for our opponents a lot more, practice harder, know their tendencies. You can’t let the crowd bother you, because when you let the crowd bother you, you get off focus and off beat. That was a problem for us this past season.”
Players thinking along the same lines as the coaches they visit on a more consistent basis seems like a positive means of achieving a championship goal. Or is that- Gold.