Urban Meyer felt like a man with his hands tied behind his back when looked down his bench searching for playmakers last year in Tuscaloosa. Finding someone healthy enough to play was a tough enough problem but all his playmakers were either out or slowed down with injuries. Considering the final outcome, it might not have mattered but it sure didn’t help that there was a lack of healthy bodies.
“This time last year we kind of got blown up,” said the Florida football coach after Wednesday’s practice. “We lost Bubba (Caldwell, broken leg against Tennessee), then all of a sudden Jemalle (Cornelius, high ankle sprain against Kentucky), Dallas (Baker) was beat up and Chad (Jackson) had hamstring problems basically the whole middle part of the year.”
There was no experienced depth at the wide receiver position last year and definitely no playmakers on the bench. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered on this day when everything Alabama did worked to perfection and the Tide came away with a 31-3 win, but it certainly limited what the Gators could do on offense against Alabama’s outstanding defense.
Depth shouldn’t be a problem for the Gators Saturday when they play host to Alabama in The Swamp (3:30 p.m. EDT, CBS TV). Baker, Cornelius and Caldwell are all healthy and ready to go, and behind them, Florida has several young, very fast receivers who have had to grow up quickly in Florida’s first four games.
“It’s nice when you see you have depth on the bench and you can say go in, go in,” said wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales. “That right there has me fired a bit more than I was last year.”
Baker has caught 24 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns. Caldwell has 11 receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns and Cornelius has 10 catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Additionally, freshman Percy Harvin has caught eight balls for 145 yards and a touchdown and sophomore Cornelius Ingram has eight catches for 100 yards and one touchdown. Senior Kenneth Tookes is coming off the best game of his career, two catches for 37 yards against Kentucky.
Harvin has been bothered by a high ankle sprain since the Tennessee game so he’s been limited in games and limited in practice. Meyer is hoping he could be back close to full speed for Saturday’s game but due to the nature of the injury, he knows that nothing is certain.
“Harvin did a little bit today,” said Meyer after Wednesday evening’s practice. “We’ll do more tomorrow. That high ankle sprain is a bad deal and as a coach you know it.”
Cornelius had his best game ever as a Gator in 2005 at Kentucky before suffering a high ankle sprain early in the first half. It took several games for him to get back to full speed again.
Gonzales said the Gators may have to go deep into the bench against Alabama and that may require using some wide receivers who haven’t seen much action in the last couple of games.
“We’ve got some young guys like Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper that haven’t been on the field much since the second game of the season,” said Gonzales. “Getting them ready to go is a priority this week.”
Florida’s receivers will be going against an Alabama defense that runs a 3-3-5 stack which allows the Tide the flexibility to bring a lot of people on the rush and to drop a lot of people into coverage.
“They play an unusual defense,” said Meyer. “That’s that 3-3-5 and it’s just a rule breaker and they drop eight in the pass coverage quite often. They’re very well coached. Coach (Joe) Kines does a nice job and they play hard.”
Meyer called Alabama’s defensive ends and the secondary the strength of the defense. Gonzales likes what the Tide does in the secondary and in particular, he’s impressed with senior corner Ramzee Robinson.
“They’ve got some fantastic athletes on defense,” said Gonzales. “They are extremely fast and they have some big athletes up front. They play a 3-3-5 and they’ve got Robinson back there. I think he is as fine a cornerback as there is in the country.”
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If Saturday’s game comes down to a field goal, Meyer said he will not hesitate to put placekicker Chris Hetland on the field. Hetland has missed his only two field goal attempts of the season and against Kentucky, two of his extra point attempts were blocked.
Hetland, who is fighting through some pain from a hip flexor, had a good day of practice on Wednesday, hitting all five of his kicks and that impressed Meyer.
“I’ve got lot of confidence in Chris Hetland,” Meyer said. “I’ve coached kickers that you kind of look in their eyes and you don’t know what’s going on up there and Chris Hetland is no different than Chris Leak. He’s a very competitive young guy and very talented. I just wish we had got him more field goals. The two I gave him (misses of 47 and 52 yards against Tennessee) were long ones.”
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Meyer thinks the offensive line is ahead of last year’s line at this time of the season. He gives part of the credit to ex-Gator Donnie Young, an All-American on the 1996 national championship team that was known for his toughness and his ability to get the job done. Young was a two-time winner of the Southeastern Conference Jacobs Blocking Trophy.
“Donnie Young is the best,” said Meyer, who said he loves hanging around with some of the players off that championship team. “It’s no surprise they won a national championship. Donnie Young was a big part of it. He’s really helped us, just having him around.”
Young has watched tape with this year’s linemen and offered advice. It’s all part of a scheme that has brought the offensive line from point of weakness to a position that is becoming a team strength. The Gators have already had two games of 200-plus rushing yards and they are averaging 175.8 yards per game. In 2005, the Gators averaged just 146 rushing yards per game.
“Coach Addazio and Coach Hevesy have done a good job but more importantly (center) Steve Rissler has done a tremendous job of keeping that group together and letting them improve,” said Meyer. “We can still get a lot better, too.”
The improvement has happened even though a key component of the line in the preseason has missed the first four games. Ronnie Wilson was expected to be a vital part of the line at right guard but when he broke his ankle in August, it forced a re-shuffling of the line with Drew Miller having to shift from right tackle back to right guard, where he got a handful of starts last year.
“When Ronnie went down there was a lot of panic around our facility,” said Meyer, who says the Gators have surpassed his expectations since that day because “on good teams people step up and they have.”
Wilson has been practicing this week but if he plays at all Saturday it will be in a very limited capacity. That means the Gators will go with their normal line of Rissler at center, Jim Tartt and Miller at the guards, and Phil Trautwein and Carlton Medder at the tackles.