For 10 minutes following Wednesday afternoon’s practice, Urban Meyer gave a passionate speech about the responsibilities of being a Florida Gator to his team, which was circled around him and on one knee. It was the kind of speech that reminded wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni of those days at Bowling Green when Meyer was in his first year as a head coach.
“Those days seem like a long time ago but those were about three times a day back in 2000,” Azzanni said after Wednesday’s practice. “It kind of fires me up. That’s the Coach Meyer I remember for sure.”
Judging from the reception by the players as Meyer spoke, it once again became clear that Meyer is back 100 percent as Florida’s football coach, ending all concerns from his leave of absence after the Sugar Bowl.
Asked why Meyer picked this particular practice for such a spirited speech, Azzanni said, “I think he’s having fun out here coaching again. I think he’s really having fun and there’s new blood around. He’s got a great team. He’s excited about the team. It’s kind of re-invigorated him and I love it. I follow his lead. All of us coaches follow his lead. We go as he goes.”
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Last week Meyer said the Gators don’t have an offensive identity quite yet, but it is apparent that this spring is pretty much a probe each day to pinpoint who can make plays and what personnel packages work the best. The Gators lost a record-setting quarterback in Tim Tebow, outstanding wide receivers in Riley Cooper and David Nelson, and All-American tight end Aaron Hernandez. Losing that many experienced players has meant much of this spring has been spent identifying who the playmakers will be next season.
“I think anytime you lose four skill players like we did you’re trying to you’re trying to put in and fit pieces to the puzzle,” Azzanni said. “Coach Meyer always says we’re going to do what fits us, what fits our guys, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. I think that’s what he meant when he said we don’t have an identity. We’re just trying to figure out who are our playmakers now? Who can we trust out there? Where do they fit? In the summertime we’ll come back and put it all in a bucket, mix it up and see what comes out.”
Here is a position by position breakdown of Wednesday’s practice on the offensive side of the ball.
QUARTERBACKS: John Brantley had a great drive going during the 11-on-11 portion until a mishandled exchange with Chris Rainey ended the drive with a fumble at the 15. On that drive, Brantley opened with a 13-yard scramble for a first down then completed passes of 15 yards each to Deonte Thompson and Carl Moore before a shovel pass to Omarius Hines took the ball to the 15.
Later on in the scrimmage, Brantley couldn’t find a receiver, broke containment and rambled 18 yards for a first down. He’s not going to bring back memories of Tim Tebow, but he showed he is mobile enough and fast enough to get some yardage on his own when receivers are covered.
Brantley also looked good throwing the ball in a series in the red zone when he completed four of five passes. The only incompletion was a throw into the end zone that Deonte Thompson caught beyond the end line. Thompson was the only player on the field who had a chance to catch the ball.
It’s apparent that Brantley is developing some chemistry with his receivers, who are running good routes and gaining separation from the coverage.
“Coach Loeffler (quarterbacks coach) does a great job and we talk about JB being such a pure thrower everything is about timing for us right now,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “Our job out there is to get open and paint a picture for him and be where we’re supposed to be when we’re supposed to be there so he can let it go instead of looking and trying to run around wondering where we’re supposed to be.”
Freshman Trey Burton turned in the best drive he’s had all spring when he took seven plays to drive the offense 71 yards for a touchdown. Burton had an eight-yard scramble but everything else came through the air as he went 6-6 for 63 yards, finishing the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Thompson. On the drive, Burton had completions of 15 and nine yards to Andre Debose, five and nine yards to Jordan Reed and 19 and six yards to Thompson.
RUNNING BACKS: The emphasis again was on the passing game, but early in the practice Mike Gillislee got in a couple of nice plays off the right side of the offensive line. Emmanuel Moody, who took a helmet to the shin back on Saturday, was at practice but he didn’t participate in any contact drills.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton said the running backs are actually ahead of the schedule he had going into the spring.
“I’m ahead of schedule,” he said. “I needed to see Moody come out here and play through some injuries and he did that. I needed to see Gillislee come out here and execute play after play after play and he did that. The only player I didn’t get a chance to evaluate is Jeff Demps (running track), but with a 10.11 hundred meter dash, I think I’m good. I can’t coach speed.”
Gillislee has shown the ability to run between the tackles with toughness but he has also broken several long runs this spring. Drayton said he’s happy with the development of the rising sophomore from DeLand.
“Here’s what he’s done … he’s matured a lot,” Drayton said. “He’s taken ownership of learning the system, learning the offense. That’s been the most impressive thing for me; how he can feed back what it is he’s supposed to do out there. We’re big on that here. We want our young men to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I think Gillislee last year knew what to do but didn’t understand why he was doing it. I think he’s made the transition to that this year.”
The offense has shown a lot of two-back sets this spring and fullback Steve Wilks has emerged as a player to be reckoned with, both as a blocker and as a potential receiver out of the backfield. Drayton said the tailbacks like having Wilks lead them through a hole.
“Just ask the running backs, just ask the tailbacks,” Drayton said. “They feel like they’re getting separation on contact and they feel like they’re finding angles and lanes. Why? Because they have a guy who’s attacking the defense in front of them. Anytime you have a guy who is decisive and physical like that, I would love to run behind a guy like that if I could.”
During Florida’s 2006 national championship run, fullback Billy Latsko became an effective receiver out of the backfield. Drayton said Wilks has that same type of ability.
“He’s got good hands,” Drayton said. “He’s really good hands. Don’t under-estimate him. He’s got an upside that’s unbelievable and I think he’s going to be a great player for us this year.”
RECEIVERS: The wide receivers and tight ends got their inspiration for one of their better practices of the spring in the Circle of Life drill at the beginning of practice when Andre Debose stepped in for the first time. Debose, who required surgery to repair his torn hamstring causing him to miss his freshman year, took his first contact of the spring just Monday. He won his Circle of Life battle and then took some contact during the scrimmage in which he looked good running routes and catching passes.
“We did that circle drill with him and boy oh boy, that’s when you find out if a football player is a football player,” Azzanni said. “My man came off the ball and it was exciting. He did win so that was exciting. That’s when you circle up and you say, ‘please be a football player’ and he came off and I said, ‘we got one.’”
Azzanni said that Debose got the other receivers fired up, which led to their productive day in practice.
“They were fired up,” Azzanni said. “We’re building a culture now of attitude and toughness and everybody is shutting their mouth and working hard. They really wanted to see if he was going to hold up his end of the bargain and he did. He has a long way to go but it was nice to see him get out there and strike.”
It was a very productive day for Thompson, Carl Moore and Omarius Hines on the outside. T.J. Lawrence also had one of his better days of the spring, catching an 18-yard slant in which he dragged the defender five yards before he went down and nice catch for a seven-yard gain when he was the outlet receiver. Jordan Reed continued to emerge as a playmaker at tight end.
Azzanni said the receivers have made progress all spring but particularly in the last three practices. He said he isn’t completely satisfied with their progress but is very encouraged by the work ethic and willingness to get better by his troops.
“They’re not where I want them to be yet,” Azzanni said. “Have they gotten better? Yes. Finally these last three practices, I’ve smiled a little bit and gone home and said to my wife we’re getting better and that makes me feel good.”
OFFENSIVE LINE: This was a day for young guys to step up. Mike Pouncey did some work at center, but the bulk of the snaps were taken by backup Nick Alajajian. For the better part of practice, Pouncey stood on the sideline with Carl Johnson, Marcus Gilbert, James Wilson, Mo Hurt, Sam Robey and Matt Patchan looking on while Alajajian made the line calls for guards Jon Halapio and Jonatthan Harrison and tackles David Young, Ian Silberman and Xavier Nixon.
That patchwork line did its best work on the touchdown drive engineered by Burton. Burton had to scramble on the second play of the seven-play drive, but after that, the protection was good and Burton was able to hit his receivers in stride.