It’s a typical August day on the football practice field in Gainesville which means the heat index is close to off the charts and sweat is measured in buckets. The Florida Gators go at it in full pads for two and a half hours on this morning, the kind of practice that lets Coach Urban Meyer find out a lot about his team.
Practices have been moved to the University Village South fields since the Gators are about to go through a week of two-a-days. It’s a move designed to save wear and tear on the regular practice fields but it’s also somewhat of a gut check move by the coaches.
“It’s about 10 degrees hotter down here on these fields than those other ones so good to come down here for about a week,” said Meyer Saturday morning.
The heat is oppressive and practice seems like the first leg of a marathon but this is a chance to find out who really loves to play the game. The guys that are bouncing around and ready to go even in the heat and tough conditions are the guys that Meyer knows he’s going to be able to count on when the going gets tough once the games begin. He wants players that adapt, players that get themselves ready to go no matter the circumstances or conditions.
When Meyer first arrived, there were only a handful of players like that. Middle linebacker Brandon Siler was one of them. Siler is third year junior, considered wise and mature beyond his age.
“He’s a grown man,” said Meyer. “He actually was a grown man the day I met him in December a year and a half ago.”
The maturity carries over into his approach to the game of football. He’s business-like on the field behind that serious demeanor is an undying passion and love for football
“I think he loves the game,” said Meyer. “He’s a great student on and off the field as well but there are some people that truly love football and that’s his life. Football is his life. The good thing is there is more than one now. We’ve got a bundle of guys like that.”
The passion for the game, which shows in the joy that the players have for working hard and becoming a team, is a barometer for how far the Gators have come in the Urban Meyer era. He loves the transformation he’s seeing.
“I see it from (Steven) Rissler,” said Meyer. “I see it from guys like Ronnie Wilson and Drew Miller. Drew Miller didn’t give me any indication that he even liked anything about football last year and now he does. He’s a guy that’s joking around before practice and saying ‘run the ball behind me.’ That didn’t happen last year. [Football] is not like some other sports. God bless them, I don’t want to disrespect them but how do you do what we just did for two and a half hours and not have passion for what you do?”
Another area where he sees the transformation taking place is in the team traditions he’s installed like the black helmet stripe for freshmen and the senior tackle.
“Senior tackle, black stripes, leadership committee … all those things are about respect when your teammates respect you,” said Meyer. “There’s no place to hide. Last year I heard some people laughing about that. I didn’t quite understand that. Same thing with senior tackle last year. I don’t understand how you can play for the university and you kind of laugh at your last practice.”
For the freshmen, it has become a very big deal to have the black stripe removed from their practice helmets. It’s a symbol that they are officially Gators, that they are really a part of the team. Already, Percy Harvin, A.J. Jones, Brandon James and Markihe Anderson have had their black stripes removed.
“It’s something that makes you officially become a Gator,” said freshman Jacques Rickerson, a cornerback from St. Augustine.
“It means a lot to me, meaning that I’ll be a Gator very soon,” said freshman linebacker Brandon Spikes. “That’s one of the reasons I come to practice and work hard every day, trying to get my stripe off so I can be a Gator.”
When players get their black stripe removed, their “big brother” on the team gives a speech telling what his “little brother” has done to earn the right to be a Gator. Then the freshman stands and gives a speech. Meyer says that some of the speeches are quite emotional.
“We’re trying to develop some tradition where that means a lot to people,” said Meyer. “I see it happening. This freshman class has done a great job and I didn’t have to coach them up. The speeches where they remove the stripe have been fantastic.”
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Freshman Jamar Hornsby, a US Army All-American from Jacksonville Sandalwood, made the big switch from offense to defense on Saturday. The 6-4, 210-pounder spent the first six days of practice at wide receiver.
“Hornsby is going over to safety,” said Meyer. “He came to me and we need some help at safety so he went over to safety.”
The move by Hornsby, a quick recovery by freshman safety Bryan Thomas (surgery to repair a burst blood vessel near his ACL), the addition of corner Ryan Smith (transfer from Utah under a new NCAA rule) and the improvement of Tremain McCollum could allow Meyer to do a few things with Reggie Nelson that would add some flexibility to the defense.
“Reggie Nelson is going to learn free safety but he’s also going to be that nickel guy,” said Meyer. “That nickel guy, we can blitz him and cover their number one receiver at times.”
McCollum is a fifth year senior and a standout on Florida’s special teams. He’s worked hard this summer to put himself in a position to press for playing time.
Meyer joked that “every time I say something nice about him [McCollum] he turns to something … I couldn’t help but say it because he’s playing very well so I’m sure I’ll dog cuss him and I’ll tell you on Monday how bad he is.”
Hornsby and Thomas would add quality depth to the safety position. Thomas, who had arthroscopic knee surgery during the summer, suffered the blood vessel problem on the first day of practice. At first it was thought he would be out 4-6 weeks, but Meyer said he’s healing faster than expected.
“I saw him bouncing around today a little bit,” said Meyer. “He’s still a couple of weeks away.”
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In other injury updates, Ronnie Wilson has a sprained ankle. Redshirt freshman center Eddie Haupt has been slowed by a sprained ankle but he is expected back at practice Saturday evening or Monday morning.
Senior safety Nick Brooks got dinged up a little bit Saturday morning and he had some minor heat issues. Freshman defensive tackle Terron Sanders, who was taken away by ambulance Thursday, was seen in a neck brace but Meyer expects him back quickly.
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With Jim Tartt beind held out of contact, true freshman Maurice Hurt has been working with the first unit offensive line.
“He and Simon (Codrington) are still battling for the backup,” said Meyer. “Jim Tartt is the number one.”
Tartt had offseason shoulder surgery so contact will continue to be limited in August.
Meyer added that the offensive line is getting better daily because it has to work against what could be the best defensive line in the nation.
“Our two tackles [are getting better],” he said. “I attribute (Jarvis) Moss and (Derrick) Harvey to that. They’re getting well coached. They know you better line up to play or else you’ll get embarrassed.”
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The lights seem to be going on for senior Brian Crum, who has spent most of his previous four years as a body by Tarzan, game by Jane type. He’s always had the speed and strength but now it’s starting to translate into plays on the football field from his SAM linebacker position.
“Crum is a guy that is earning a little respect around here,” said Meyer. “Hopefully he’s a guy that at senior tackle it’s not real funny. Last year if Crum would have gotten up you would have patted him on the butt and said ‘good luck to you, see you later.’ I’m hoping he has a little Vernell Brown in him and he has a great year of football.”