An August that has been dominated by news of injuries doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of Urban Meyer one bit. Even with the news that All-American wide receiver/tailback Percy Harvin and All-SEC middle linebacker Brandon Spikes probably won’t play in Saturday’s season opener with Hawaii (12:30 p.m., Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Raycom TV), Meyer likes the way the Florida Gators have handled things and he credits a team that is older and more mature than the one he put on the field last year.
“If you’re invested in something you respond to adversity,” said Meyer after Wednesday’s practice. “If you’re not invested then there’s nothing to respond to because you’re not invested. My guess would be is the reason we’re still so positive and very positive that we’re going to have a great year is because there are a lot of invested football players in this program. They’re older and they’re more mature.”
Not many teams could handle the loss of Harvin, who accounted for 858 receiving yards and 764 rushing yards last season, but the Gators have tremendous depth at all the skill positions. Brandon James, who has terrorized kick coverage teams the last two years, will move to the Percy position — that hybrid wide receiver/running back that plays out of the slot. Meyer can also use Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps in that position as well.
While there isn’t nearly the depth at linebacker as there is at the skill positions, Meyer is very confident that fourth year junior Ryan Stamper can step in and handle things in the middle. With Stamper taking over in the middle, sophomore Brandon Hicks will be the chief backup at both outside positions.
“Stamper is a very physical accountable guy,” said Meyer. “He’s always there. He’s one of those guys that works his tail off. He starts on punt team, which tells you what I think of him. He’s a very accountable guy that does the right thing all the time.”
Asked if Meyer was intentionally holding out Spikes and Harvin, saving them for the September 6 showdown in The Swamp with Miami, Meyer responded with a very quick no.
“There’s no holding them,” said Meyer. “We’re playing a team that was 12-0. We better play some excellent defense and take care of the football on Saturday.”
OTHER INJURY UPDATES: Sophomore center Maurkice Pouncey practiced Wednesday even though his troublesome ankle remains sore. Backup guard Maurice Hurt won’t be playing Saturday. He has a stinger in his shoulder and Meyer said “we’re trying to get him back soon.”
Backup quarterback John Brantley, sidelined Tuesday with a staph infection in his throwing arm, was back at practice Wednesday.
Maurice Hurt has a stinger and he won’t play in this game … hurt his shoulder We’re trying to get him back as soon though. Meyer indicated that Brantley battled through a bit of pain.
“John Brantley did very well today,” said Meyer. “He fought through it. Poor guy has had injury after injury but he did very well today.”
The offensive line has had its share of dings all through training camp but eight of the nine players in the rotation will be ready to go Saturday. Senior guard Jim Tartt is practicing and taking contact this week even though he was held out of all contact drills until this week.
“Jim’s shoulder is sore and Maurkice Pouncey has a sore ankle,” said Meyer. “Today is Wednesday and they’ll be ready to go on Saturday. One thing about those guys is they’re tough and they love the game of football.”
The offensive line starters will be tackles Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins, guards Tartt and Mike Pouncey and Maurkice Pouncey at center. First off the bench will be Marcus Gilbert followed by Carl Johnson and James Wilson.
This is an offensive line that could end up as one of the best in Florida history. They are big, strong, talented and they have excellent chemistry.
“They should be one of the strongest units on the team if not the strongest,” said Meyer. “I haven’t seen them come completely back because they’re in and out of the lineup [with injuries] but we’re anticipating that to happen real soon.”
UPDATE ON DAVIS, THOMAS AND ANTWINE: Torrey Davis, Bryan Thomas and Brandon Antwine were not part of preseason camp but all three rejoined the team and started practicing again Monday.
Davis, a sophomore defensive tackle, had some academic issues that he had to get through in the summer. He has jumped through all the academic hoops but he has a few other issues to work his way through and there is no indication when he will be available to play in a game.
“He’s just trying to get right,” said Meyer. “He’s out there working with the scout team.”
Getting Thomas back is important since the Gators are quite thin at the safety positions. Thomas has had injury problems in his two previous years but he has the talent, size and speed to contribute once he gets through the mandatory NCAA conditioning.
“Bryan Thomas is probably a week away,” said Meyer. “He had a cyst removed from the back of his knee so he won’t play in this game. We’re trying to get him ready as soon as we can.”
Antwine’s situation is more complicated. He had a serious kidney issue that caused problems with his back, ending his season prematurely last year. Just getting him back on the field even if it’s just for practice is a big deal since his health issues were thought possibly career ending.
“It was a devastating back injury,” said Meyer. “He’s not going to play in this game but he’s out there trying. Give Brandon a lot of credit. It was a real painful situation he had.”
Meyer said the health issues were extremely complicated and that he still doesn’t understand all that was going on.
“I don’t fully understand the injury but they say it was something with his kidneys malfunctioning and the muscles in his back actually died,” said Meyer. “He just had some issues … poor guy. We’re hoping to get him back.”
For now, Antwine is doing mostly conditioning. There is no set timeline for his return to the playing field.
“He’s out there practicing or trying … he’s not practicing with pads on,” said Meyer. “He’s just trying got get in shape and we’ll hopefully get him back the second half of the year.”
KICKING GAME: Meyer said that Jonathan Phillips will be the field goal kicker and freshman Caleb Sturgis will handle kickoffs. Sturgis has a tough job with new kickoff rules. The Gators will still kick at an angle, hoping to pin the kick returner on the sideline if the kickoff doesn’t make it into the end zone.
Meyer wants the ball in the end zone if at all possible.
“Kick it up in the stands and start at the 20,” said Meyer. “It’s awful hard to do from the 30 though. The new rule says you kick it out of bounds you start on the 40. That changed the game of college football in a big way as far as scoring points and making decisions whether to defer or not. We still haven’t decided what we’re going to do.”
PATCHAN, WILL HILL DE-STRIPED: Freshmen Matt Patchan and Will Hill will both be playing Saturday. They lost the stripes on their practice helmets Wednesday. Hill will be the first off the bench at safety, backing up both Major Wright and Ahmad Black. Patchan will be in the defensive line rotation.
Patchan had an excellent Wednesday practice.
“He had a great day today,” said Meyer. “He’s doing very well. He just loves the game of football and goes a million miles an hour.”