Pass Protection Problems Plaguing Gators

All Urban Meyer has to do is look at the film and he can see why his offense is struggling. Fumbles, interceptions, dropped passes and penalties obviously have a lot to do with it. Inadequate pass protection for quarterback Chris Leak has also played a big role in turning a potentially dynamic offense into one that goes through long periods of time in games struggling just to get first downs.

Against Georgia Saturday, the Gators lost one fumble, threw one interception, dropped three passes that would have resulted in drive-continuing first downs, and committed 10 penalties.

The pass protection problems were magnified in the 21-14 win over Georgia when Leak suffered a concussion on the game’s 35th play. That ding, said Meyer, affected Leak the rest of the game.

“I saw the play where he did get hit,” said Meyer during his Sunday morning teleconference. “That was a mistake by the right tackle but one of our goals is not to get that guy hit and we’re not doing a great job of that. We had three time outs that we had to burn which were play call issues which I think were a result of the concussion.”

Meyer said that Leak came up to him after the game and told him he had problems because of the hit to the head and while Meyer understands that Leak wants to stay in the game because the Gators are battling for an SEC championship, he does wish Leak had said something sooner.

“I appreciate the fact he’s fighting through and battling and trying to put us in the best position to win the game but we have to be smart,” said Meyer.

The concussion shouldn’t keep Leak from practicing during the week although Meyer said the training staff would watch him carefully. Leak’s concussion does highlight the Gators’ issues on the offensive line where pass protection problems and drive-killing penalties have become a plague.

“We’re not doing a very good job of protecting him,” said Meyer. “I know we didn’t give up any sacks but our goal is to not get him hit and we didn’t do a very good job of that.”

Meyer said the Gators are running the ball well but they could be doing it better, plus they’re throwing well on play action. When it comes to the drop back passing game, however, that’s when things get dicey because of protection issues.

“The teams we have faced have dynamic rushers and we’re having trouble holding up against them,” said Meyer. “I think our run-action passing and our rush yardage are okay. Our drop back passing game right now is not very good.”

Florida leads the nation in penalties at more than nine per game. Against Georgia, the Gators committed 10 infractions and eight of them were against the offense. The Gators committed two substitution infractions (12 men breaking the huddle), four holding penalties and two false starts. The Gators also were called for an illegal block that negated a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown by Brandon James.

Here’s how the penalties affected the Gators:

In the second quarter, a holding call against Percy Harvin on a first down Leak to Bubba Caldwell pass turned a second and five situation into a first and 15. The drive stalled and Florida punted.

With Tim Tebow in at quarterback and Florida facing third and two, Carlton Medder jumped offsides when Tebow had to alter his cadence because someone forgot to go in motion. Third and two became third and seven, Florida threw incomplete on third down and punted on fourth.

“It went from third and two to third and seven,” said Meyer. “That may not seem like a big deal but it’s a huge deal. Tim’s at quarterback and had a good series and we’re on third and two where you want him. We’re right on schedule and you go to third and seven.”

Later in the second quarter, the Gators had driven from their own 25 to the Georgia 36 when Jim Tartt was called for holding. Instead of third and 10, the Gators went to second and 20 back at the 46. The next play (Leak to Caldwell) went for 14 yards but the Gators missed a fourth down pass, turning the ball back over to Georgia.

In the third quarter, Tartt was called for a false start on first and ten at the Florida 24. This one didn’t hurt because when the Gators punted, the ball hit Georgia’s Kelin Johnson on the leg and Florida recovered in Georgia territory.

After recovering the ball, the Gators got called for a substitution infraction on first down at the Georgia 28. Those five yards might be the difference between Chris Hetland knocking down a field goal and the reality that his 39-yard attempt boinked the right upright.

In the fourth quarter, Phil Trautwein got called for holding on a second and 10 to negate a 23-yard run by Bubba Caldwell that would have put the ball on the Florida 44. Instead of first down near midfield, the Gators had second and 20 at their own 11. Florida had to punt.

The final penalty was a hold called on Jemalle Cornelius during a seven-yard run by DeShawn Wynn on Florida’s final possession. Instead of second and three, the Gators went to first and 13. Florida did manage to convert this first down and held the ball to kill the rest of the clock.

“I’ve not had that issue like we have it right now and the only area we have it on is offense,” said Meyer. “We had eight offensive penalties in that game and half of them were if you had depth you just make personnel change.”

Florida has had problems with penalties all season long on the offensive line. If the Gators had adequate depth on the offensive line, Meyer said one solution would be to replace the constant offender.

“I think the number one thing is you replace the guy that’s doing it,” said Meyer. “There’s a couple that I’ve seen enough but the problem is that we have depth issue. I know what we’re going to do in about three years from now when we hopefully have the depth and you’re just out of the game.”

Unfortunately, for now, there isn’t the necessary depth to pull players that kill drives with false starts or holding calls.

“We have six functional offensive linemen right now and Ronnie Wilson is the sixth,” said Meyer.

Wilson is a redshirt freshman that Meyer predicts will be one of the greatest linemen in Florida history before his career is over, but for now he’s a player that’s just getting up to speed after essentially missing three years of football because of injuries. The fact that Wilson is the only lineman ready to go is troubling to Meyer.

“We should have across the board guys battling out for spots and we don’t have that,” he said.

In defense of his linemen, though, Meyer said there are no “issues” with them.

“We’re dealing with a good bunch of people here,” he said. “We don’t have issues here. We have some guys that it looks like are a little bit over their head. Carlton Medder hasn’t played a lot of football here but he’s getting better. He’s busting his tail and doing everything he can.”

* * *

Meyer said that the offensive staff has to do a better job of integrating Tim Tebow into the offense. Right now Tebow has become a very one dimensional runner. When he’s in the game, defenses pretty much assume — and quite correctly — that he’s going to run the football. He threw a couple of touchdown passes against LSU but he has not attempted a pass in the two games since then.

“I’m upset that we didn’t do that [let him throw],” said Meyer. “He had six carries and we had a couple of good passes in there for him. We’re rethinking the whole thing. Doggone it we want that kid to play. He’s one helluva player.”

* * *

With Hetland’s 0-2 performance on field goals Saturday, Meyer says he needs to make a change. Hetland is 1-7 on field goals this year and his only make is a 22-yarder against Auburn. He missed from 39 yards against Georgia when the ball hit the right upright and he fell a couple of yards short on a 42-yarder.

“It’s reached the point where I’d like to make a change,” said Meyer. “I’m not going to make a change just to make a change. The guy’s got to do it.”

The alternatives to Hetland are senior Eric Nappy and sophomore Jonathon Phillips.

“Nappy is a senior,” said Meyer. “He has a strong leg but he kicks a low ball sometimes.”

Meyer doesn’t like low kicks because they too often result in blocked kicks.

“Remember Florida State?” Meyer asked. “Those are bad deals to have.”

Hetland does get the ball high into the air quickly and that is one of the strengths of Phillips. However, neither Phillips nor Nappy have been able to beat Hetland out in practice and that, says Meyer, is where the kicker is determined.

“The way I’ve always done it you have to be beat out in practice,” said Meyer. “Someone says ‘I’m a gamer.’ I don’t believe in gamers. I believe in guys that lose their job in practice.”

Meyer will audition kickers once again in practice on Wednesday.

“Wednesday we’re going to open it up again and if someone is even with him this time, they’re going to kick Saturday,” said Meyer.

* * *

Reggie Nelson’s value at free safety was never more evident than it was Saturday against Georgia. The Bulldogs dropped five passes, three in the second half, and all of them were across the middle where Nelson holds court.

Georgia tight end Martez Milner had three drops, two in the second half, and Mohammed Massaquoi short-armed a slant pattern when he expected Nelson to unload on him.

“I think that’s what happens when you have a playmaker back there,” said Meyer, who added that he’s been coaching wide receivers for 14 years and wide receivers always “know where the hitter is.”

Meyer said, “Reggie Nelson’s that kind of player. You have to know where he’s at.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.