ORLANDO — You could say that Urban Meyer has spent a lifetime preparing to play the Michigan Wolverines. Growing up in Ohio, Meyer was an Ohio State fan and then he spent two years as a graduate assistant on the Ohio State staff. Plus there were five years on the Notre Dame staff. Notre Dame-Michigan doesn’t have the same intensity as Ohio State-Michigan but there isn’t a lot of love lost.
As Meyer’s Florida Gators prepare for the January 1 Capital One Bowl (1 p.m., Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, ABC-TV), Meyer remembers what it was like growing up in Ohio the week of the Ohio State-Michigan game.
“I can’t tell you [what I thought of Michigan],” Meyer said. “You have no choice. Where I came from it was all scarlet and grey. The other ones got beat up and lost their lunch money. I kept all my lunch money.”
Now that he’s a coach, the childhood hatred has been replaced by a healthy respect for the Wolverines and what their football program stands for.
“I admire them because they do it the right way,” Meyer said. “I admire programs that don’t cheat, have good kids and they’re a high end academic school.”
Michigan’s program is going through some changes now that Lloyd Carr has retired. He has been replaced by Rich Rodriguez, formerly of West Virginia. While Michigan was searching for a new coach, the phrase “Michigan Man” was often heard, most often in conjunction with LSU coach Les Miles, a former Michigan player and assistant. Although Michigan chose Rodriguez, who never played or coached at Michigan before, Meyer understands where the folks in Ann Arbor are coming from.
In fact, he would like it if someday the Gators are talking about a potential coach as a “Florida Man.”
“I really would [like to see a Florida man developed],” Meyer said. “I think Ohio State and Michigan have some advantages over us in certain areas. They were winning championships back in 1910, 1920s and 1930s. I think we’ve caught them here in the last ten years, but if you go up and visit those places, it’s deep with tradition. The facility we’re building is going to have a hall of fame walk, All Americans get bricks in that stadium and there’s a bunch of different things that I took from some of those schools.”
“You can’t help but walk past the All-Americans every day, so that does nothing but help and it also helps with recruiting. It’ll help us with former players coming back in one way or another.”
The term “Michigan Man” was first coined by former Michigan coach and athletic director Bo Schembechler, a legendary figure who aso had ties to Ohio State, where he was an assistant to Woody Hayes. Meyer can recall his first encounter with Schembecher when he was a grad assistant at Ohio State.
“I met Coach Bo during my first Ohio State-Michigan game,” Meyer said. “My job was to coach receivers and also hold the door open. I made $5,000 a year to be a door holder. After we had our pre-game talk, I open the door and there is Bo Schembechler. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Michigan’s stadium, but the two teams come out of the tunnels facing each other. I opened that door and there was Michigan football with Bo Schembechler.”
GOOD DAY FOR PERCY, WIDE RECEIVERS: Percy Harvin sprained an ankle at practice Wednesday but Meyer said his sophomore wide receiver/tailback looked “tremendous.” Meyer said that Harvin “battled through it [sprained ankle] and had a great practice.”
Harvin, who rushed for 599 yards and caught passes for 781 yards this season, is expected to be 100 percent by the time aroundTuesday’s kickoff rolls around.
Another wide receiver that caught Meyer’s eye was freshman Deonte Thompson, who took a red-shirt this year. Thompson has learned plenty in this developmental season and he will be looking to make a move up the depth chart in the spring. Having Thompson ready to go will be important with the graduation of Bubba Caldwell and the potential departure of junior Cornelius Ingram to the NFL Draft.
Meyer thinks that this year’s Florida wide receiver corps compares favorably with the nation’s best and with the best group in Florida history. The 1996 national championship team boasted wide receivers Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, Ike Hilliard and Travis McGriff, who all played in the National Football League.
“Those were the best in the country at the time and I think we have some that, when they’re on their game, they’re as good as there is,” Meyer said. “I think what makes them special is the fact that they’re the best blocking group of receivers in the country. There are a lot of guys that run fast and jump high. The national championship game was a great indication a year ago when they just dominated the edge. Another was the FSU game this year.”
MIKE POUNCEY STANDS OUT: Mike Pouncey’s enthusiastic transition from offensive guard to defensive tackle continues to energize the Florida defense. The original plan was switch Pouncey back to offense in time for spring ball but Pouncey has taken to the switch so naturally that now there might be some second thoughts about giving him up. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison would love to have Pouncey for three more years.
“He’s making it tough for everybody, especially Coach Mattison,” Meyer said. “That’s going to be a discussion after this game. I think he wants to play offense. The best thing about Mike Pouncey is he loves Florida football and will do anything to help his team. He’s close (to being an actual defensive lineman). I wouldn’t put him in that category yet because it takes about a year. He’s got a lot of juice and energy.”
NO CASUALTIES: A constant challenge for any head coach in a bowl game is to keep his players academically eligible for the game. The Gators had no academic casualties and a better than 2.9 GPA for the fall. While there aren’t any academic worries, Florida’s staff is trying to make sure no players get involved in something stupid while they are in Orlando.
“You’ll watch ESPN everyday and someone is losing kids,” Meyer said. “I just don’t understand those [kids’] decisions. We remind them and we stay on them. I think last night and tonight are the nights you worry about. As it gets closer to game time you cut down the curfew. Last night I gave them a 2 o’clock curfew and we had no issues. So tonight its one o’clock, then midnight and it gets earlier from now until game time. The position coaches are responsible for their players.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Florida fans knew before the season that a young defense would have some growing pains this year. The Gator defense struggled much of the year but starting with the Vanderbilt game, they made huge strides. The defense looks to continue that momentum through the bowl game against Michigan.
Meyer has his eyes on two areas where the team can improve and immediate help looks to be on its way for the bowl game.
“We have to get better on the defensive line and at corner,” Meyer said. “Those are the two areas that we’re not up to par. Injuries have hurt us. I think we lost five defensive linemen this year and that’s right defensive linemen that we didn’t have. (Justin) Trattou is up to 260 right now and we’re going to keep him inside. He’s unbelievable. With his energy level, effort and attention to detail, he’s going to be a great player inside. The other guy that’s really making a push right now is Lawrence Marsh, so it’s all starting to happen. There’s a recruiting void from the year before I got here and my first year; they’re not here. I’m not sure where they’re at but they’re not here. We can’t let that happen again.”
CASEY PROBABLY WILL BE BACK: Coach Meyer also said after Thursday’s practice that the senior tight end Tate Casey will most likely return to the Gators next season after taking a medical redshirt this year.