Urban Meyer isn’t ready to give the Florida secondary the total stamp of approval quite yet, but he’s seeing the kind of progress that has him breathing a whole lot easier than he was 15 days ago when preseason camp began. There are a lot fewer questions at cornerback and he’s seeing improvement at the safety positions as well.
When preseason camp began Meyer thought he had one corner position in decent hands with fifth year senior Reggie Lewis, who started the final three games of the 2005 season, and one big question mark at the other corner. One of the solutions to the other corner was moving free safety Reggie Nelson to corner and while Nelson has proven he can get the job done at corner, moving him off the back side weakens the safety position.
The fears have been eased day by day with the almost daily improvement of Lewis. Even though he has been at corner just a little over one year, he’s starting to play like he’s been at the position all his life. What has been encouraging is the play of Utah transfer Ryan Smith and fifth year senior Tremaine McCollum. Their recent practices have allowed Meyer to move Nelson back to free safety although he’s a good enough athlete that he’ll see action at the nickel and at corner in certain matchup situations.
Meyer gave a lot of credit to the improvement in the secondary to cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater. Heater coached the corners for Meyer at Utah and last year was considered a big reason that Vernell Brown played as well as any cornerback in the Southeastern Conference.
“Coach Heater has a way of doing it,” said Meyer. “When I hired Coach Heater at Utah we started the ‘04 season without one corner on that team that had any playing experience whatsoever but Ryan Smith became a freshman All-American, Bo Nagahi became a captain and then he comes here and we have a little guy named Vernell Brown that played his heart out. Coach Heater has a tendency to make a player out of a non-player.
“Reggie Lewis is playing excellent football for us. Ryan Smith is doing very well and so is Tremaine (McCollum).”
With the cornerback position looking more solid, Meyer can plug Nelson in wherever he’s needed most.
“Reggie is going to be a dual player for us — free safety, corner and nickel,” said Meyer. “There’s not many guys that can do that. He’s every bit that kind of player.”
When Nelson is at safety, the Gators have an outstanding tackler. Meyer has seen improvement in the tackling area this preseason from safeties Tony Joiner and Kyle Jackson as well.
Meyer noted that in 2005, when the Gators got strong tackling from the safety position, Florida usually won. When there was a letdown, the Gators fared poorly.
“When you evaluate our season last year the big three rival games were great defensive performances because we were single digit missed tackles,” Meyer said.
Against Tennessee, Florida’s secondary played what Meyer would describe as the perfect game.
“How many opportunities do you have to make a play?” Meyer said. “Our secondary had to come up and either tackle them and knock a ball down 18 times in the Tennessee game and they did it so we were 18-18 on the back end. I’ve never heard of that before but when we played well we played very well and when we played poorly a couple of times on the road the back end didn’t tackle very well.”
Meyer admitted the Gators work at tackling “maybe more than any school in the country. We do open field tackling about every day.”
The one area that still concerns him in his secondary is depth. While things are looking good as far as finding reliable starters, there isn’t much depth at either corner or safety.
“The depth … you go out here and scrimmage a little bit and I’m out here holding my breath at times and it’s not fun to coach that way,” he said. “You get something like turf toe and you have a little problem.”
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There was both good news and bad news on the injury front Tuesday. The bad news was that freshman running back Brandon James had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and he’ll be out for about four weeks. The good news was that Bryan Thomas (burst blood vessel near his ACL) is getting close to being able to practice again and Maurice Hurt is going to be ready to play by game one against Southern Mississippi.
The news about James hurts the Gators both in the running game where he was looking like he will be the third tailback and in the return game where he might have been the number one kickoff returner.
“Brandon James had arthroscopic surgery today,” said Meyer. “He’s out for about four weeks … he had a meniscus. We look forward to getting him back. He was doing good for us, too. We just have to get him back ASAP.”
Meyer said it’s the first time ever that James has been injured playing football.
“That’s the part of the job that’s awful especially, you hate to say it like this, for the guys who love the game and BJ loves football now,” said Meyer. “His high school coach told us that and he came from a great high school program and he loves the game. He’s going to be back. He’s a young guy. The hardest thing is he’s never been hurt before. That’s the one hard part about this game is dealing with the injuries but he’ll be back.”
Thomas was thought to be good enough to challenge for starting time at safety before he hurt his knee on the first day of practice. Meyer said that he’s coming along nicely.
“He’s getting close but he’s not practicing yet, though,” said Meyer.
The return of Hurt will be outstanding news on an offensive line that has lost guard Ronnie Wilson (broken ankle) for a few weeks and has had a few other nicks and dings to deal with. Hurt had his knee scoped but no damage was found.
“Mo Hurt is walking,” said Meyer. “They got the stitches out. They’re going to be doing a rehab in the pool to keep him in shape so we should have Mo Hurt back for the first game and Ronnie Wilson for as early as we can this season.”
Left tackle Phil Trautwein, who had a stress fracture in his foot in the spring, had some soreness Monday that kept him from practicing. He was held out Tuesday but it was precautionary.
“If we were playing a game he would easily be able to play but we’re probably going to hold him one more day maybe two more days but he’s ready to go,” said Meyer.
Meyer held out freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin once again.
“Percy hasn’t practiced in a while and he’s ready to go but we keep holding him out because if you’re injured now you won’t play in that first game,” Meyer said.
Bubba Caldwell, who had a temperature of 101 Monday, had his fever spike at 103 before it broke. He could have practiced Tuesday but Meyer held him out.
“He’s could have practiced today but for sure tomorrow,” said Meyer.
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Freshmen continue to make a statement for playing time. Meyer said that several true freshmen are probably going to see playing time on special teams. Meyer really likes the contributions that he’s seeing from the young guys.
“Dustin doe is doing that well,” he said. “A.J. Jones will start on kickoff. He’s going to be a very good player for us. I’ll tell you one guy that’s appealing to me and that’s Wondy (Pierre-Louis). He hasn’t played a lot of football (Haitian native, played for the first time in the ninth grade). He looks at me like I’ve got six heads sometime when I’m explaining stuff to him but he can run. He’s a very good athlete that wants to play. There’s a chance he’ll start on kickoff. (Brandon) Spikes, too. Percy Harvin is a guy that I might put on kickoff because he’s a tough guy.
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Meyer still hasn’t named captains and he’s considering the possibility of using game captains because he has 20 seniors on the team.
“I’ve thought about that and I just don’t know,” he said. “I’ve talked to some people, other colleagues, and I have some ideas that I’m running by some people that I want to do something. We have 20 seniors on this team and that’s unique … 20 seniors … a bunch of guys, Nick Brooks, Tremaine McCollum and Jermaine McCollum they haven’t played a lot of football here … Reggie Lewis, too .. but they’ve done everything we’ve asked this year so I’m just devating a few things in my mind soon.”
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Three more freshmen lost the black stripe on their helmets Tuesday — middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, center Jim (Chuck) Barrie and cornerback Jacques Rickerson.
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Meyer said there are a few players that are “primos” — guys that he has to have on the field if the Gators are going to have success this year.
“(Drew) Miller (right guard) is one of our primos,” Meyer said. “Dallas Baker (wide receiver) falls into that category right now. (Steve) Rissler (center), Drew Miller, (Phil) Trautwein (left tackle) fall into that category because they are premier players and we can’t afford to do without them. On defense, Jarvis Moss (defensive end), Earl Everett (WILL linebacker) and Brandon Siler (Mike linebacker) kind of fall into that category, too.”