Meyer Keeping An Eye On Freshmen This Week

It is game week with the clock counting down quickly until the opening kickoff of Florida’s game one of the 2006 season in The Swamp against a good Southern Mississippi team. Coach Urban Meyer has a pretty good idea what the next few days are going to be like for his 20 seniors. He doesn’t have a worry in the world about those guys. He knows they’re all about getting fine tuned and ready.

For 34 players who have four years of eligibility remaining, however, it is a different story. They are dealing with a whole new set of circumstances this week and it is Meyer’s job to keep them on an even keel and to find out who’s going to be ready to play and who isn’t.

“We’re 20 seniors and then 34 guys with four years of eligibility of which a bunch of those guys are going to play,” said Meyer.

If it were his call, he’d lock them all up — seniors and newbies alike — in a hotel this week and let them out only for practice and meals. That way he’d be able to keep the distractions to a minimum. But, this is college. They’ve got to go to class. They’ve got to answer their cell phones when family calls wondering about tickets. They’ve got to get prepared to play and they have to find a way to tune out everything except what is important.

“We’d like to just keep them locked up,” said Meyer. “I worry about the distractions. I know as a coach you get distracted quite often dealing with many issues during game week. With the young players I just wish that we make a concerted effort to shelter those guys so that they are ready for the task at hand.”

The task at hand is a very good Southern Mississippi team that Meyer is quite familiar with. Meyer spent the month of December preparing to play Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl when he was the coach at Utah back in 2003. He’s got plenty of respect for Coach Jeff Bower’s ball clubs.

“We played them three years ago in a bowl game and for one month we studied them,” he said. “They are excellent in all phases. That same year we played Oregon, Cal, and Texas A&M … all of them at the time were in the top 20 and Southern Miss was the best team we played that whole year as far talent, scheme, and coaching.”

Meyer is very well aware that Southern Miss is the ultimate college football road warrior. The Golden Eagles annually play one of the toughest road schedules in college football. It’s one of the ways they balance the athletic department budget, but unlike a lot of teams that do the road trip thing, the Golden Eagles have this nasty habit of making life unpleasant for the home team. They’ve sprung their share of upsets away from Hattiesburg, too.

So not only is Meyer’s task keeping his youngsters calm and collected as game day approaches, but he has to keep them focused on playing a team that will come into The Swamp without fear.

“They are a very good team,” said Meyer. “Our focus is to keep the team on target and focus on the task at hand, not worrying about who’s getting what tickets, whose uncle’s coming today and who should have been here yesterday. We have to keep our eye on the target.”

Meyer doesn’t worry about his seniors. They are providing excellent leadership and they know what game preparation is all about. The young guys are the concern and a lot of them are going to see live action in a real game situation for the first time Saturday.

“There’s going to be a bunch of them play this year,” said Meyer. “Three or four starting on the kickoff team … on offense and defense there’s going to be people involved in the game that it’s the first time playing.”

Those first timers are the ones he will watch rather hawkishly this week. He’ll be looking for any telltale sign that they’re starting to let nerves get in the way.

“The one thing I’m decent at is I can look at a guy’s eyes and all of a sudden a guy starts dropping the ball, he’s not ready yet,” said Meyer, who said that’s not the problem with his veterans.

“Jarvis Moss, I know exactly what his Wednesday and Thursday practice are going to be like so I’m all set,” he said. “Same with Dallas Baker, same with (Steve) Rissler. I know exactly what those guys are going to do. It’s going to be real interesting with Percy (Harvin), to see those three young linebackers, to see which corner can come in and help us play and the guys that have not played for us.

“I want to see Marcus Gilbert. He’s a very talented guy. It’s hard for me to say Marcus Gilbert, in flat talent, is not one of the more talented guys on the team but how is he going to react as we get closer and closer and closer? Same with Tim Tebow. He’s played a lot of football but he’s not played in this place yet.”

For the most part, Meyer has been pleasantly surprised with the freshman class. Rated either first or second nationally by every recruiting analyst, the 26 freshmen have shown in practice that they’re not all hype. Meyer likes the way they practice and he likes the way they handle the intensity. It’s not like this with most groups of freshmen.

“They are not a typical class,” he said. “I’ve not had to deal with the phone calls. I’ve not had a phone call yet from a parent telling me how the Heisman chances have been uprooted. I’ve not had to deal with that. I’ve had to deal with guys that have asked what do I need to do to be a better football player and it’s really refreshing.”

Meyer said that no promises of playing time were ever made to the freshmen. They have known since day one that all playing time is earned based on their hard work in practice.

“There are no promises made at Florida,” he said. “There are no contracts drawn up saying you’re going to start the third game of the season. There’s none of that.”

Meyer pointed to freshman wideout Percy Harvin. Rated the top player in the nation by so many scouting services, Harvin could have come into Gainesville and played the role of the prima donna but instead, he’s been the picture of hard work and has remained very humble.

“It’s been really refreshing as a head football coach and our coaching staff to have Percy Harvin, a very highly touted guy,” said Meyer. “He’s the prime example of the guy that could come in there and say, ‘wait a second, you told me this.’ First, of all, we didn’t tell him that and he has not done that. His questions to me have been how do I get better? How do I get better against bump and run coverage and how do I get more involved? I like to answer those kinds of questions. I can deal with that. It’s the other nonsense.”

He won’t know for sure how these young guys will handle the pressure of being front and center with 90,000-plus fans right on top of them, making The Swamp the loudest place on the planet for about three and a half hours Saturday. He won’t know until he sees them handle their assignments for the first time. It won’t be easy turning the newbies loose against a good team. Meyer probably deep down wishes Florida had scheduled the Savannah School of Art and Design instead of Southern Miss, but that’s totally out of his control.

What he can control is getting the kids blended in with the veterans. He’s got veterans he believes he can count on to form the core of this team. Now if the young guys can step in and make some serious contributions, Meyer might have just the kind of team that can rekindle some great memories.

Florida’s 1996 team is best remembered for the play of veterans like Danny Wuerffel, Donnie Young, James Bates, Jeff Mitchell, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard. Newbies like Zach Piller, Corey Yarbrough, Cooper Carlisle and Ryan Kalich all had to make significant contributions for Florida to win the national championship. Now no one is predicting a national title for the 2006 team, but if the attitude of the freshmen is a prelude of things to come, this could become quite the season to remember.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.