If there is one word that adequately describes what Urban Meyer is seeing this spring it is uncertainty. Unlike last spring when Meyer had the luxury of returning his entire two-deep roster on defense and one of college football’s best players of all time on offense in quarterback Tim Tebow, what Meyer sees this year is a team with plenty of questions that will have to be answered before the Gators play their first game in September.
“There’s no continuity,” Meyer said after Friday’s practice in shorts and pads, a preparation day for Saturday morning’s full contact scrimmage. “The offensive line is all banged up. Defensive line you don’t have (Lawrence) Marsh and (Terron) Sanders in there. So many young players. This will be the biggest offseason as far as development. We have to get those freshmen ready to play. Last year we had 22 back on defense. This year, it doesn’t seem like any right now.”
Over on the offensive side of the ball, Meyer says the Gators are still searching for an identity.
“We don’t have an offense,” Meyer said. “I told you that five years ago. We’re going to do what we do well. If that’s I-formation, it it’s shotgun, if it’s Jordan Reed at quarterback, if it’s throwing it all over the lot … I don’t know.”
Asked if he had ever gone through a spring with so much uncertainty on offense, Meyer responded, “Yeah, year one and year two at Florida … year one, two, three, four at my first two jobs [Bowling Green and Utah].”
One thing for certain, the Gators will be using converted quarterback Jordan Reed, who is a full time tight end now, and freshman quarterback Trey Burton to run the football in third and short situations much in the same way Tebow was the power back on third down as a freshman in 2006 when Chris Leak was the starting quarterback. Leak was a pure passer, same as Johnny Brantley, who will take over for Tebow at quarterback this season.
“On third down and three I know what we want to do and Johnny is probably not going to do it because he’s not that kind of player,” Meyer said. “Everybody said we just ran Tim because he’s a great player and that’s partially true but the other part of it is it’s single wing offense and you plus them [the defense] in the run game. Jordan Reed has proven he can do it and Trey Burton can run real well. I think this is probably the year we actually do like we did when we had Tim and Chris Leak.”
Meyer said that Brantley is having a good spring but looks “like a guy who can really throw the football and a guy who has to get better in a lot of things.”
On defense, the Gators have to replace ends Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham, linebackers Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Dustin Doe, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Major Wright. The greatest concern at this time is the lack of tackles practicing this spring.
“Our two inside guys aren’t here,” he said. “Right now we’re playing football Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard [at tackle].”
The line should should shape up considerably in August when Marsh, Sanders and Brandon Antwine return healthy from their injuries. The Gators signed five freshman defensive linemen and at least three of them should contribute significantly this year — end Ronald Powell and tackles Dominique Easley and Shariff Floyd. Freshman Leon Orr is an early enrollee who Meyer said has to improve and Lynden Trail (defensive end) probably won’t contribute in the fall while he adds weight to his long, lean frame (he’s 6-7, 220 pounds).
Meyer said the linebackers are looking good and developing some depth. He praised sophomore Jelani Jenkins, whom he said is “playing his rear end off.”
The Gators are also looking for a field corner (plays wide side of the field) to play opposite boundary corner (plays short side of the field) Janoris Jenkins.
“The field corner we haven’t solidified who that is going to be,” Meyer said. “Is it Moses Jenkins, a freshman or is it going to be Jeremy Brown or Adrian Bushell? We haven’t determined that yet.”
Brown, who was ahead of Janoris Jenkins when the two were freshmen back in 2008, has spent two seasons on the sideline due to a back injury. He’s back this spring and starting to show signs that he could play a lot in the fall but Meyer says he’s being brought along slowly.
“We’re being more cautious than we probably should but that’s my order because he’s such a good kid,” Meyer said. “Work ethic and effort and toughness isn’t a question, just his body. Can his back hang in there? But he’s doing great.”
The Gators are solid at safety with Ahmad Black and Will Hill, but they like to run a three-safety lineup against certain offensive schemes, which means freshman Matt Elam will be on the field.
“Matt Elam will play next year,” Meyer said. “He’s earned that right already. He’s a helluva player.”
MOORE RETURNS: Senior wide receiver Carl Moore, who missed the last two practices to deal with personal issues, was back at practice Friday afternoon. Meyer wouldn’t go into detail about why Moore was absent the last two practices.
“Carl Moore had to take care of some issues,” Meyer said. “He’s back. Zach (wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni) feels good about it. He [Moore] had a good day today. Young guys have things to take care of once in awhile. Nothing major.”
Asked to elaborate on why Moore missed practices, Meyer responded, “Things happen and you have to take care of business. He had some personal issues that had nothing to do with school or legal issues. Young guys every once in awhile go through something. He has to be a player for us. Has to be.”
MEYER MET WITH COACH K: During his leave of absence after the Sugar Bowl, Meyer spent a lot of time talking with close friends about changing his coaching routine to make things less stressful. He also made a trip to Durham, North Carolina to meet with Duke basketball coach Mike Kryzyzewski, who took a leave of absence 12 games into the 1994-95 season for back surgery.
I did meet with Coach Kryzyzewski,” Meyer said. “I went up there and talked with him for a little while. He actually went through something when he had a health issue he dealt with and he actually took a year off.”
Asked what he gleaned from the meeting with Coach K, Meyer said, “I think the biggest thing I learned from him without getting into much detail: he surrounds himself with a little pack of people that he really trusts. If you look at his staff they’re all former players. He can do that because it’s such a small staff. I think that’s important. You get that foxhole mentality with guys that care about you and you care about them.”
FASTEST FOOTBALL PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY: That’s Jeff Demps, the rising junior tailback who isn’t practicing this spring because he’s running with the Florida track team. Demps is the fastest football player in the country but for the first three months of 2010, he’s the fastest human in the world. At the Florida relays Friday, Demps, who won the NCAA indoor championship in the 60 meters, ran a 10.11 100 meters, which is the fastest recorded time at that distance this year in the entire world.
“Fastest man in the world someone told me,” Meyer said with a grin. “And a great kid. He’ll be ready to go [in the fall].”
SPRING SURPRISES: Meyer said the surprises this spring have been tight end Jordan Reed, who is making the transition from full time quarterback, and Elam, who is an early enrollee.
“Jordan Reed is really positive,” Meyer said. “The kid likes to play football. If you have a passion for football you’re going to play. He’s going to play. Matt Elam is a guy that has surprised me. He’s really doing well.”