No Poker Face

“Giddy” is not a word usually associated with his get-in-your face demeanor. It just doesn’t go with adjectives like “intense” or “passionate” or “fervent.” Uncommon as it may be as a description of Urban Meyer’s mood, however, there’s no doubt that’s the way Florida’s coach was feeling late Saturday afternoon.

Coming off the field after the Orange and Blue spring game where he had just seen a rather remarkable display of athleticism and talent, right into the sea of well-wishing high school coaches in town for a clinic, over to another impressive group of high school recruits, Meyer was brimming with enthusiasm.

He didn’t need to tell anybody – it was written all over his smile. Florida’s football coach looked fresh and energized. Try as he may to hold that straight flush close to his vest, Meyer could no longer resist expressing the enthusiasm he holds for this 2010 Florida team, the new players, the coaches and The Gator Nation. Yes, he beamed – right In front of media folks, no less, who had been waiting nigh an hour for his appearance.

“I’m jacked right now — I don’t know if you can tell by this press conference,” Meyer told them. “I see a lot of bright eyes. I see a lot of healthy players. And I know they are going to be trained by the greatest strength coach in America.”

The translation: Meyer is having fun again coaching football. Excellent players, a crowd of 51,500 on a spectacular spring day of new beginnings at The Swamp and the smell of promise looming over the five months ahead—the perfect antidote to a hangover from all the negativity of 2009. Besides, he secretly knows this team might be pretty good, as difficult as it may have been to discern from a spring game where a good quarter of the cast was missing.

All of a sudden this squad has the look and feel of success. Most of the parts of the jigsaw puzzle are dumped on the table and, as Meyer sits and stares at them – awaiting the missing pieces to arrive – he’s beginning to get the vision of the picture on the box.

With 17 members of his No. 1 recruiting class yet to arrive until summer, all the precincts aren’t in yet. But my vote is that this could be the deepest roster of talent, top to bottom, I’ve ever seen at Florida. You probably won’t get Meyer to admit that, but there’s ample evidence of how he feels just by the twinkle in his eye. And, of course, the proof will be in the coaching and execution as to whether excellent talent translates into an excellent team.

Urban referred to Saturday as the beginning of the “post-Tebow” era, and when he and his team took Florida Field for the start of the Orange and Blue game in front of what looked like about 10,000, he joked with quarterback Johnny Brantley that nobody had come to see him play.

This was the day Brantley had awaited all his life – to be the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators – which caused him to tingle as he was walking out of the tunnel Saturday. Neither the crowd, nor the performance of the new starting quarterback, would disappoint.

The Johnny Brantley Era opened with a bang—a 47-yard pass to speedster Deonte Thompson on the first play—and ended with the redshirt junior setting what was announced as an “Orange and Blue Debut record” by completing almost 79 percent of his passes (15 of 19).

This was set up to be Brantley’s day from the get-go, as indicated from the first offensive plays: The pass to Thompson and then a 21-yard pass caught by the long-awaited Andre Debose. And away the Gators went for a day of offensive showcasing.

Brantley was sharp, throwing for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and it didn’t require much imagination to visualize what damage he could inflict on a defense with all the speed he’s going to have when all his receivers get on the field (See Deonte, Debose, Chris Rainey, Frankie Hammond, Solomon Patton and Jeff Demps—as well as skilled ones like Carl Moore, Justin Reed, Omarious Hines, Stephen Alli and Robert Clark). The quick strike capabilities that this unit possesses could be awesome.

None of that is news. It would be news if Brantley hadn’t knocked it out of the park. But the fact that Meyer has impressive depth at the quarterback position certainly is. Name me the last team in college football to have FIVE of them on scholarship. That’s right, FIVE! And as of Saturday, after stellar showings by true pre-freshman Trey Burton and redshirt sophomore tight end/quarterback Justin Reed, we know three of them can play. Just in case they all get hurt, punter Chas Henry is probably the best emergency QB in the country. And newcomer Tyler Murphy arrives this summer.

Behind Brantley, I’ve never seen a young pre-freshman just off his high school campus come in and perform at the skill level of Burton, who ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. His 76-yard run was the longest in memory – records weren’t kept until starting in 1996 – and his 130 yards led all rushers. Reed had some quality snaps in the Wildcat and actually wound up passing for the Blue team’s winning touchdown to T. J. Lawrence in the 27-24 victory.

Granted, there wasn’t much defense – almost none of the starting secondary was on the field, but, then, hardly any starting offensive linemen were either.

This was simply a dress rehearsal – the music blaring, the band playing, the fans yelling – in the Big Ball Yard. It got high marks from the boss.

“I give it an ‘A,’” Meyer said, a grade he also applied to the entire spring practice. The reason being that his players suffered no serious injuries, he saw major improvements from beginning to end, his coaching staff seemed to meld with the four new members and he identified players – especially at linebacker and receiver.

Urban said he was thankful for the coaching staff he had in place and loved the attitude of players and coaches. And he’s pleased that they all have what he calls “that foxhole mentality.”

“You talk about a team with a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to have that again …and do it the ‘Florida Way.’”

There are plenty of questions to be answered yet, not the least of which will be those about his health. Everyone will be watching – especially the national media – to see if he has his emotions under control and shows any outward sign of stress. Personally, I don’t think they’ll see it, because starting over with almost a whole new team presents a whole new set of challenges and with lower expectations, pressure should be different. Clearly the so-called “leave of absence” seemed to help. But there are those within the inside of the organization who aren’t convinced yet – for Urban’s own good – that he will back off when the season starts.

Yet, he can’t change completely. Urban has to be Urban. Phil Mickelson isn’t going to hit 1-iron off No. 18 in the majors. I remember when Steve Spurrier was provoked by those who said he was too animated on the sideline. He stayed calm for one game – in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse – and his Gators got waxed by the Orange. “Never again,” said Spurrier, who was a cameraman’s delight on the sideline and won quite a few games after that.

Meyer’s health will continue to be a story line. Before the game Saturday, I spoke by phone with a friend of mine who does some college football with ESPN and the first thing he asked was: “How’s your coach?”

“Fine,” I said, suspecting he may not have believed me.

Funny thing is that if he’d asked me that four hours later, I’d have answered, “Giddy.” And I know for sure he wouldn’t have.