Urban Meyer knows all about George O’Leary and there is a healthy respect for the University of Central Florida coach. Just because O’Leary’s Golden Knights are members of Conference USA and not one of college football’s high rollers, Meyer isn’t about to let his team take UCF lightly this week in practice.
That respect began to grow back when Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame and O’Leary was the head coach at Georgia Tech. Meyer said that Georgia Tech teams were always tough and well prepared, a reflection of their coach. O’Leary’s coaching address may have changed to UCF but Meyer expects the same things he’s always seen from an O’Leary coached team.
“Central Florida I don’t think has a good football coach but a great football coach,” said Meyer at his Monday media gathering. “He’s one of those coaches that knows offense, defense, and special teams. He took a team that was 0-11 and now they have won nine of their last fourteen games.”
Meyer knows he’s facing a good football team Saturday when the Gators host the Golden Knights in The Swamp and he’s seen the film of Florida’s 34-7 season opener over Southern Miss. Between the Gators’ mistakes in the opener and the fact that UCF is a good team, Meyer knows it is imperative that the Gators turn in a good week of practice. However, Tuesday’s practice was not the kind that is indicative that there will be a good Saturday performance.
“Bad day today … bad day at practice,” said Meyer. “It was hot. All indicators were that it was going to be a bad practice. It was really disappointing that the older guys … we’ve got too many young guys playing, that’s the problem … — too many young guys that don’t know how to fight through some hot weather and full pads and coaches screaming at them and I was disappointed that the old guys didn’t suck up and help the young guys. We’ve got to have a good one tomorrow.”
The Golden Knights play in the same league with Southern Miss but Meyer believes that UCF is a notch ahead of their league rivals. He doesn’t worry that the Gators are looking ahead to Tennessee a week from Saturday because there are too many holes that need to be patched up first.
“If you watched the tape we just weren’t very good Saturday and we played a good team,” said Meyer. “We’re probably playing a little better team than Southern Miss this week. We have so many other issues to deal with about getting better. You have no time to worry about looking ahead because you’re just trying to make it through the next day. I think our team knows we’re not very good right now. We’ve got a long way to go.”
As for Central Florida, one thing Meyer is well aware of during this week’s preparation is cornerback Joe Burnett, who finished sixth in the nation last year in punt returns, taking two back all the way for touchdowns. Burnett, a sophomore from Eustis, averaged 16.5 yards per punt return and he also intercepted five passes to lead the team.
“He’s dynamic,” said Meyer.
Meyer is preparing the Gators for a team that will try to pound the ball between the tackles. O’Leary likes to play smash mouth football to set up the passing game for his senior quarterback Steven Moffett.
“Against Tulane (last year) they ran the ball 19 straight power plays,” said Meyer. “They’re going to try come right at us and try to pound the ball.”
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Meyer indicated once again that he expects senior defensive tackles Marcus Thomas and Steven Harris to play Saturday. Harris was carted off the practice field Tuesday with back cramps but Meyer said it was nothing serious and he expects Harris to be back practicing Wednesday.
Thomas didn’t play Saturday because of disciplinary issues. Meyer was asked after Tuesday’s practice why he doesn’t announce suspensions before a game.
“I’ve been asked that many, many times,” Meyer said. “My job is to try to protect players and I think if a young guy makes a mistake, that’s the head coach’s business, the family’s business and it’s certainly not the guy in Daytona or someone to pick up the newspaper and all of a sudden now the kid is labeled. I don’t believe in that. I hate to say it but I think some coaches do that to make themselves feel good.”
Meyer said that when a player makes a mistake it is an issue within the team and not for public consumption.
“If he made a mistake, he made a mistake and he’s not going to play,” said Meyer. “If it’s a legal issue I have to deal with it in public. If it’s a team issue, that’s why we call it a team. You guys want to be part of the team … go through summer conditioning and become eligible. I don’t believe in hurting kids, I really don’t. When I see coaches do that, I don’t get it.”
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Meyer anticipates that true freshman Brandon James will be back from arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus for Saturday’s game. James, the 5-7, 175-pound all purpose back from St. Augustine, has been out for three weeks but he was back at practice Tuesday.
“Brandon James is back,” said Meyer. “He might be returning for us.”
Meyer said James will go through some more testing to make sure he can move laterally but there is nothing wrong with his straight ahead speed.
“He did a whole practice and ran a sub-4.5 yesterday,” said Meyer. “All they’re worrying about is the cutting ability. We’ll know more probably Thursday.”
Also on the injury front, freshman safety Bryan Thomas was dressed but didn’t practice Tuesday although Meyer said he’s getting close to being back. Guard Ronnie Wilson is continuing rehab and will be back to practice next week although it’s way too early to tell if he could play in the Tennessee game.
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All four of the Gators’ starters in the secondary earned champion status for the Southern Miss game. It’s no surprise to Meyer that the secondary plays well. He thinks Coach Chuck Heater is one of the best coaches he’s ever been around.
“I first met Chuck in 1986 and I was a young coach,” said Meyer. “I thought he was one of the best teachers. I used to sit in his meetings and watch him coach. I was a graduate assistant at Ohio State.
“In 2004 [at Utah] we had secondary position come open and he calls me up, and we’re friends too … he said, ‘I hear you have a position open’ and I said yeah, who you got? I think he’s going to recommend a guy and he said, ‘How about me?’ I said holy cow! What we’re paying at Utah isn’t a whole lot of money and I said I can’t afford you Chuck. He said, ‘Try me’ so I did and we hired him.”
Utah had three corners that season that had never played but Heater turned them into an outstanding group. One of the corners, Ryan Smith, made freshman All-America. Smith transferred to Florida and graded champion in game one. Meyer loved Smith’s effort.
“I really feel good except when he lined up wrong on the first play of his college career at Florida,” said Meyer with a laugh. “After the game he walked up to me and gave me a big hug and said thanks. It was kind of a neat deal.”