With two-a-days winding down and the season opener with Southern Miss fast approaching, Coach Urban Meyer is starting to turn some of his attention to the mindset of his team. Thursday, he had a special evening for the team that included a talk by Coach Billy Donovan of Florida’s NCAA championship basketball team.
Expectations are high for the Gators, predicted by SEC writers to win the East Division championship. Early reports Friday morning that the Gators might be ranked as high as sixth in the first Associated Press poll. With so much expected, Meyer is trying to get his team in a championship state of mind.
“Coach Donovan spoke to the team last night,” said Meyer after Friday morning’s full contact practice. “We had a great evening. We called it “Championship Night.” We showed video of the Miami Heat, the ‘96 [football] championship team here and the basketball team [Florida’s 2006 national champs]. Our guys did a great job of putting together a really good video tape.”
Meyer has stated many times how he admires the way Donovan brought the Gators together for their run through the NCAA Tournament field. The Gators were known for their unselfish play and commitment to teamwork, two areas he’s been stressing to the football team throughout the preseason workouts.
“He just told them what he’s told the public, how you win championships,” said Meyer. “It was a great evening last night, one of the best evenings I’ve been a part of.”
Meyer said he had hoped the members of the basketball team could be there for the cookout but all of them have gone home this week before classes begin for the fall semester.
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Meyer was pleased with the Friday practice. The Gators went one full contact session Friday which included goal line, red zone, short yardage and third down work.
“It was a hot one today,” said Meyer. “We had a good day. We got one today, tomorrow a double and then Sunday they’re off, then we’re officially getting ready to go. I was really pleased with today’s effort.”
One of the standouts in the Friday session was freshman tailback Brandon James, who Meyer said had been rather quiet for a few days.
“Brandon James did better today,” said Meyer. “He has been kind of silent for about four days. We had a goal line scrimmage, a red zone scrimmage, a short yardage scrimmage and a third down scrimmage and he made a couple of plays in there.”
James is a 5-7, 175-pounder with the ability to change directions quickly and avoid tackles. It’s a skill that was sorely lacking last year for the Gators.
“The one thing we didn’t have is the jitterbug, the quick make you miss guys,” said Meyer. “When you only have 47 big plays over 20 yards … we did a study and we only had 47. In the late 90s there were 85, 80 and 78 so we need some guys that can make you miss in the open field so we went on purpose after some of the guys we went after.”
James and fellow freshman wide receivers Percy Harvin and Jarred Fayson are those ultra-quick darters that can make people miss, allowing them to turn five yard plays into long gainers. Harvin, who has been slowed by a hip flexor, was back at practice Friday although it wasn’t full time or at full speed.
“We expect him Monday to be full speed,” said Meyer.
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Another one of the stars of Friday’s practice was wide receiver/H-back/tight end Cornelius Ingram, who continues to make huge strides at the new position.
“[Ingram was] one of the stars of today’s practice so he’ll play in the first game,” said Meyer. “It’s not going to be a role where it’s 50-60 plays. He’s not ready to do that but he had an excellent day today.”
The former All-America football and basketball star from Hawthorne is still learning how to play receiver. He was a quarterback all his life and his first two years at Florida but he has the kind of athletic skills that make him almost a can’t miss prospect as a receiver.
“Not many guys can do the things he can do,” said Meyer. “You just wish he was a little bit more physical because he just never really played football before but his attitude is terrific and he’s just a big, skilled athlete.”
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Three more freshmen lost their black helmet stripe Friday. Defensive end Lawrence Marsh (Augusta, GA), wide receiver Justin Williams (Folkston, GA) and linebacker Dustin Doe (Jasper, FL) officially became Gators when the black stripe was ripped off their helmets.
Meyer said that Williams had a couple of big plays as his role has increased with Harvin and Fayson on the injured list. Doe came through with some big plays as well.
“Dustin Doe had a couple of big hits,” said Meyer. “Doe had a couple, like three or four big hits so he got his [stripe] off.”
Doe is being counted on to provide depth at linebacker this fall as a true freshman but Meyer said he was hoping that the 6-0, 220-pounder would be taking on more responsibility by now.
“He’s a little bit behind,” said Meyer. “I thought he would be a little bit further ahead than he is. Today he moved up his value on the team but I was hoping he would be further along than he is.”
With the injury to sophomore Jon Demps (tear of a graft on a surgically repaired ACL), the three freshmen linebackers (Doe, A.J. Jones and Brandon Spikes) will have to step it up. Meyer said, “All three linebackers will play this year.”
The three freshmen were all highly touted in high school and so far, they’ve lived up to their billing.
“They’re talented guys,” said Meyer. “There’s not a miss there. Sometimes you look at a recruit and say that guy isn’t what we thought he would be but all three of those guys are going to play for us.”
Senior linebacker Brian Crum, who has shuffled between tight end and linebacker his previous four years at Florida, continues to look like he will be more than adequate at the strong side (SAM) position.
“Crum is a very critical part [of our defense],” said Meyer. “When we’re in base defense — you have base, nickel and dime—but in base he’s a starting SAM and he’s playing like a starting SAM. A.J. Jones is his backup right now.”
Meyer said there has been no thought of moving Jermaine Cunningham, the 6-4, 225-pound freshman, from defensive end to linebacker.
“We have the same depth issue at defensive end,” said Meyer.
Cunningham and Marsh are both playing well enough in the preseason that it is probable they will play in the fall.
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In the secondary, Meyer said that newcomer Ryan Smith is ahead of the three freshman corners. Smith, who was a freshman All-America at Utah in 2004, does have certain advantages over Markihe Anderson, Wondy Pierre-Louis and Jacques Rickerson.
“Ryan Smith is ahead of all the newcomers because he played college football,” said Meyer. “Markihe’s next, Wondy has a lower back — nothing major — lower back strain so he hasn’t been practicing as much , and Rickerson has to learn to practice at this level. He’s talented but he just doesn’t understand the speed of the game.”
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Meyer continued to be cautious about the offensive line situation where injuries have caused depth issues and some serious reshuffling. Maurice Hurt, out with a knee problem, will be back next week and that will ease the situation at guard somewhat but the injuries have forced young players like Marcus Gilbert, Carl Johnson, Simon Codrington and Jason Watkins to grow up fast.
“Some [young players] are good, some are not so good,” said Meyer. “We don’t have the depth. You wish some of the young ones would come up a little faster than they are. What I’m pleased with are the guys that are going to play. We just have to stay healthy.”