A year ago when spring practice began, Coach Urban Meyer and his Florida staff had a pretty good idea what they had to work with. Although there were a few depth issues at linebacker and at cornerback — and it seems there are always depth issues at cornerback — there were plenty of experienced seniors to work with and in Meyer-think that is a very good place to begin.
A year later, still basking in the glow of a national championship in just his second year on the job at the University of Florida, Meyer and his staff start the spring with far more questions than they’ve had in either of the two previous springs. Spring football begins next Wednesday and the first and most important task will be to replace nine defensive starters and 22 seniors. There are only 20 scholarship players available on the defensive side of the ball this spring. Complicating matters is the lack of underclassmen.
“We’re not a good team,” said Meyer as he addressed the media Wednesday afternoon. “We’re a little bit of a train wreck right now.”
This will be Meyer’s third spring at the University of Florida. The greatest problem he had in year one was learning everybody’s name but he had enough bodies available and experienced players at nearly every position except corner (perpetual shortage there) and linebacker (see cornerbacks).
There were 15 or so seniors that first spring and of course, more than 20 on hand last spring when the staff had a pretty good idea that they had a sky is the limit future if everything fell in its proper place. This year, the numbers are what Meyer considers inexcusably low.
“We have, I think, seven seniors,” he said. “That’s awful. You can’t have seven seniors at the University of Florida.”
The lack of seniors problem wouldn’t look nearly as bad if there was an adequately large junior class in place, but that’s not the case.
“Seven seniors is not what you coach at Florida,” said Meyer. “The worst thing is behind that you have eight juniors. It’s not a real positive right now.”
There aren’t a lot of upperclassmen on the Florida roster for a variety of reasons. Some didn’t want to wait for a chance to play. There were the usual grade issues for a few of them. The biggest reason, however, is adjusting to Meyer’s plan for life approach to Florida football. Not everybody, it seems, thinks that you have to go to class, make positive progress every year toward earning a college degree, and living a squeaky clean life off the field.
Those that hang around know they have to embrace Meyer’s personal involvement and demands on their life or they will quickly find themselves searching the internet for a new place to go. The positive is that the players that stick it out are fully committed to the program. The negative is that you end up with a situation like Meyer faces this spring, lacking upperclassmen and the kind of leadership you get from mature players who know what’s expected of them.
In Meyer’s system, the older, experienced players take the younger players under their wings and they show them how things are done. Meyer expects upperclassmen to play with the kind of effort and desire that raises the bar for how the game is played at their positions.
“Earl Everett and Brandon Siler set the standard for linebacker play,” said Meyer. “Reggie Nelson set the standard for free safety play. We had the two corners Ryan (Smith) and Reggie (Lewis) set the standard for corners.”
But without the experienced players on hand to teach the younger guys how things are done, there is a void that will have to be filled. Meyer has no doubt that Tim Tebow will handle the leadership role on the offensive side of the ball the way he expects a quarterback to do it even though he’s just a sophomore.
“Tim is as good of leader as I’ve ever been around,” said Meyer. “He leads by example.”
What Meyer needs is more Tebow-like leadership from his younger guys but instead he’s having to deal with swelled heads and inflated egos. The freshmen and sophomores, it seems, don’t seem to have the necessary respect for the older guys and that’s a problem that will have to be dealt with.
“I really believe there is a respect issue between the older and younger guys,” said Meyer. “As Bill Bellicheck said, a lot of the young guys woke up on third base and they didn’t hit the triple. I think that’s a great way of looking at it. All of a sudden they’re holding these silver balls up, these crystal balls up, and they’re getting measured for rings and they’re going to shake the President of the United States’ hand without going through three years of what some people would call torture but we call player development.”
Player development. That’s what spring football is for. It’s a time to get players better and to see who’s going to be ready to play next season, but it’s also a time to bring egos back in check. There’s nothing like a championship and a couple months off to watch egos inflate a bit and there is not a better way to bring everybody back down to earth than strapping on the helmets and putting on the pads.
If you wonder how it is that respect and egos become a problem, then take a moment to consider that it’s been more than two months since the Gators were practicing and getting ready to play Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game. Sure, there have been mat drills and weight lifting and other workouts, but it is not the same thing as getting out on the field and playing football.
It definitely isn’t the same thing to go through all the pre-spring workouts as it is in the blazing sun of late March or early April, sweating like a hog and discovering that you’ve managed to piss off Steve Adazzio or Greg Mattison or one of the other Florida assistant coaches. When they’re in your face, it usually means there is hell to pay.
There will be some hell to pay this spring. There will be some egos that come back down to earth and you can bet that the younger players will either develop some respect for the older guys or else.
If we’ve learned anything from Urban Meyer the last two years, it is that he understands what it takes to build a team. You can have all the talent in the world but if the leadership is lacking, the team isn’t going to be very good. If you’ve got the talent and the leadership, amazing things happen as we saw back on January 8.
“The good news is that we have quality people in the program that want to win,” Meyer said.
The desire to win can cure a lot of ills.
CORNERBACK: Meyer said that the Gators will have four scholarship corners on hand this spring in Markihe Anders, Wondy Pierre-Louis, Jacques Rickerson and early enrollee freshman Ahmad Black of Lakeland. Rickerson had his knee drained recently, but Meyer expects he will be 100 percent by the end of the spring. Meyer said the staff expects big things of Black but the Lakeland freshman has been hampered by a hamstring pull recently.
Meyer said that it isn’t set in stone that Markus Manson will move from running back to corner or that early enrollee freshman Joe Haden will play both wide receiver and corner.
“There have been no position changes,” said Meyer. “There is only one person that will make position changes and that is me and there are none. Now, there have been guys looking around and trying to figure out the best way to help the team and the best way to help themselves get on the field. Markus Manson is a running back at Florida. That has not been changed. Joe Haden is another very talented and very fast. He going to get a look at corner but he is not a corner, he is a wide receiver.”
SAFETY: A decision will probably be made this spring about Jamar Hornsby, who took a redshirt last year. Meyer said that Hornsby might be better suited to play wide receiver because his straight-ahead speed is so much greater than his lateral speed.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Meyer said this is an area he expects to be the team strength. Steve Rissler is the only starter missing from last year’s unit. There is a possibility that Drew Miller will move over from guard to take over the center position. Ronnie Wilson and Maurice Hurtt will also get a look at center. Tackle Marcus Gilbert will not be at 100 percent this spring after undergoing elbow surgery.
DEFENSIVE LINE: There are only seven able-bodied scholarship defensive linemen on hand this spring. Meyer said he’s anxious to see young guys like Lawrence Marsh, Jermaine Cunningham and Terron Sanders compete this spring along with Derrick Harvey, the lone returning starter from the best defensive line in the country. Javier Estopinan will not go 100 percent this spring after coming off ACL surgery last fall.
LINEBACKER: There are only four scholarship linebackers but Meyer likes the talent at the position. Brandon Spikes will take over at middle linebacker for Brandon Siler. Dustin Doe is the heir-apparent to the strong side linebacker position and A.J. Jones and Ryan Stamper will be on the weak side.
Meyer said although he doesn’t have a lot of depth, he’s got players that love to play the game.
“The good thing is you love these guys,” said Meyer. “They are like sponges. Brandon Spikes and A.J. Jones love football. They are doing well in the classroom and doing everything we ask. I can’t wait. That’s one of the areas I’ll be sneaking down to watch during practice to spend a lot of time watching because they are also a lot of the special teams performers of the future.”
RUNNING BACK: Meyer expects Mon Williams to get a chance to prove himself as “the man” at tailback.
“He walks through the door and you see his track times and you say ‘that’s what I want’ … good young man, strong, tough, high knee drive,” said Meyer, who said that Williams just wasn’t ready to go last year.
“He will get an inordinate amount of work this spring. He will carry the ball as much or more than anyone else.”
Meyer said early enrollee freshman Bo Williams will miss the spring after shoulder surgery.
QUARTERBACK: Meyer has Tebow, junior college transfer Bryan Waggener and early enrollee freshman Cameron Newton in camp this spring. John Brantley will enroll in August. Meyer plans to redshirt one of the quarterbacks.
“Dan (Mullen) and I have talked a little about it and I would like to have two quarterbacks,” said Meyer. “In this conference with our style of offense, with the style of defense played, the quarterback will get hit. We’ve always wanted to play two. We’ve never had the luxury like we had last year to have a backup with the quality presence that Tim Tebow had. I’m hoping that we have three tremendous guys signed, two are here on campus that you’ll get to watch them in the spring. I’m hoping to play two next year. I think the competition will be fierce. One will redshirt for sure and the other two will probably play.”