Nobody in 2006 benefited more than the Florida Gators from a new NCAA rule that creates an element of free agency. Ryan Smith got his degree from Utah in the summer, then took advantage of the new rule to transfer to the Florida where he earned second team All-America honors. Just because the rule provided the Gators with an unexpected bonanza, don’t expect Urban Meyer’s endorsement.
Under the new NCAA rule which was put in place in the summer, football and basketball players that have earned their degree and still have eligibility remaining can transfer without the penalty of having to sit out a year. Meyer was opposed to the rule before it went into effect and just because he’s been the greatest beneficiary doesn’t mean he likes it.
“No, that’s not a good rule,” said Meyer after the Gators finished phase one of their preparations for the Tostitos National Championship Game against Ohio State on January 8. The Gators will be off until Tuesday when they reconvene to get started for phase two of Meyer’s plan to bring home a title.
Meyer believes that the new rule has the possibility to create a myriad of unforeseen problems that could plague the college game in the future.
“Coaches find ways of pushing everything to the edge,” he said. “And the next thing you know you’re going to start someone knows someone’s uncle and if you graduate you can come here and coaches are trying to recruit their guys back … no that’s not good. Every time you hear the words free agency in college sports, that’s not good. You see what it’s done in professional sports.”
Smith ended his career at the University of Utah on a sour note. He was a freshman All-America in 2004, the year that Meyer led the Utes to their greatest season ever, a 12-0 run that finished with a Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt. When Meyer left for Florida after that season, taking with him Chuck Heater, Smith’s position coach, things took a different turn.
Smith wasn’t playing well in 2005 and then he was hurt. When he returned from the injury, he found himself on the bench more often than the field. Even before the new NCAA rule was in place, he was determined to graduate from Utah in the summer of 2006 and then transfer. The new rule simply opened things up for him to transfer to a Division I football program instead of a Division I-AA or Division II program where there are no transfer requirements.
“I know exactly what happened at Utah and it’s not no one’s fault,” said Meyer. “It’s someone’s fault. It’s his fault and he didn’t adapt to a new style of coaching, he didn’t adapt to a position coach when he lost Coach Heater.”
When the NCAA put the new rule in place, Smith and his father contacted Meyer and the Florida staff. Even though Meyer doesn’t like or approve of the new rule, the transfer was legal and he wasn’t going to say no to Smith.
Once Smith got his bachelor’s degree, he was accepted to graduate school at Florida and that enabled him to play football for the Gators. The transfer couldn’t have happened at a better time since Meyer dismissed budding star Avery Atkins from the team during the summer. Atkins, a sophomore, was expected to start at corner and his departure left a void that Smith filled immediately.
From the first day of two-a-day practices in August, Smith made it a point to prove to Meyer, Heater and the Florida players that he belonged
“He came in here on a misson, didn’t smile, just locked and loaded,” said Meyer. “The first guy he covered was Dallas Baker. He didn’t cover JDub (Justin Williams) or David Nelson or one of our second or third team guys. He came in and said I want to jump in and cover this guy. He not only covered him but locked him down pretty good. He earned instant respect.”
Smith is 5-10 and doesn’t look very physical at 165 pounds. Starting with game one against Southern Miss and all the way through the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas, opponents have tried to challenge him with taller, more physical receivers but the more he’s been challenged, the more he has risen to the task.
Smith led the SEC in pass interceptions with eight, a total that ranked him fourth in the NCAA rankings. He also blocked a punt against Vanderbilt and played a vital role in Florida’s excellent special teams.
Meyer wasn’t all that surprised that Smith came to Florida and adapted quickly to the caliber of athletes and speed of the Southeastern Conference, which is measurably greater than what he saw in the Mountain West Conference at Utah. Meyer says that Smith goes about his business on the field with a chip on his shoulder. He’s always out to prove everybody wrong that thinks he’s either too small or outclassed at this level.
“He’s got an edge about him and that’s in everything he does,” said Meyer. “He could do whatever he wants to be. He could be a doctor. He’s that smart. He could be an NFL player if he worked at it. His body is not right yet, though.”
And even though the new rule has given Florida a lock down cover corner that has helped the Gators make it to the national title game, Meyer still doesn’t like the rule.
“If I have a vote, which I’ve never been asked, I would vote no,” he said. “I don’t know that. There’s a lot of people, including our athletic director, who believe that as long as kids are graduating, that’s all positive. But I know the coaching profession. If there’s an angle, man you go get that angle. And we’ll find a way, we’ll get on that.”
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Florida’s special teams have come up big all year long with eight blocked kicks, a fake punt for a critical first down in a big game, and a touchdown on a punt return. Three other punt or kick returns for touchdowns were called back by penalties. At least four of Florida’s wins were directly related to outstanding special teams play.
Meyer admits that he rewards the players and the coaches on his special teams units.
“I reward the coaches involved in special teams … I reward more importantly the players,” he said. “They eat first, they get their gifts first, they get treated with elite status.
“Right there in the playbook it says that. It says that any member of the punt team will be treated with elite status by the training room, the secretaries.”
Asked about Clint McMillan, a defensive tackle that Meyer says is critical on all his special teams, Meyer responded, “You hear he’s only playing 0 plays on defense so he’s a maximus for different reasons.”
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When he looks back on the regular season, Meyer said he felt something good was about to happen with this team after the way the Gators came back in the second half from a ten-point deficit to win, 21-20, against Tennessee in Knoxville.
“I didn’t know you could go to Knoxville with this group,” he said. “I made this comment many times but our toughness was not our strength a year ago. I was concerned about that. We had a reputation for so many years. Lou Holtz said it … he said Florida’s got a lot of talent but they’re the softest team he’s ever coached against. I saw the same thing.”
Meyer saw the toughness issues start to turn in favor of the Gators with improved work in the offseason and outstanding August two-a-days. He saw how things had changed in Knoxville.
“The second half against Tennessee, you have to have an element of toughness to do that in the fourth quarter in that environment,” he said.
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Meyer commented further about the two-hour team meeting that took place on the plane after it landed in Gainesville after the loss to South Carolina in November of 2005.
“Our intent is to be the most invested team in America,” he said. “I though it was comical last year at that point with several players. They didn’t buy into it and it was time to go. That was the hardest thing. You’re either in or out. It’s very easy. God gave you the ability to make a choice so make a choice. You’re either in or out. If you don’t invest you’ve got to go.”