It took just seven plays Saturday night for Percy Harvin to validate Coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting philosophy. Meyer is a speed kills recruiter, determined to make the Florida Gators the fastest team in America. Meyer turned Harvin loose on Southern Miss seven times and Sunday morning, the Florida coach was wondering why he hadn’t put the ball in the hands of his freshman phenom even more.
“I saw what the people in The Swamp saw,” said Meyer during his Sunday morning media conference call.
What he saw was that X-factor that changes up game plans, both offensively and defensively. Meyer and his offensive coordinator Dan Mullen will have to find a way to get the ball in Harvin’s hands more often so the freshman from Virginia Beach, Virginia can turn on the jets to slice through defenses that have no way of simulating his speed in practice. Defensive coordinators will have to spend extra time game-planning ways to account for Harvin on every single play. In one game, Harvin might have ended any chance that he’ll get single coverage in the slot all season.
Of course, that will open things up for Florida’s other receivers and none of them are exactly slow.
“I’ve made the comment that we want to be the fastest team in America,” said Meyer. “Fast teams win.”
Harvin carried the ball four times for 58 yards and caught three balls for another 33. On three of Florida’s five scoring drives, Harvin had at least one play for 11 or more yards. Harvin’s ability to change the game with his speed made Meyer lament that he hadn’t gotten the ball in the hands of his other freshman difference maker, Jarred Fayson. Fayson, a Tampa freshman, is almost as fast and perhaps every bit as elusive as Harvin.
The speed factor that Harvin injected into the Florida offense Saturday night opened the game up for Dallas Baker to stretch the field. Baker teamed up with quarterback Chris Leak to catch nine passes for 123 yards and a touchdown as part of a 21-30, 248-yard, three touchdown night for Leak.
Meyer brought up the Rose Bowl game for the national championship between Texas and Southern Cal back in January. Southern Cal drew up a defensive game plan to stop Texas quarterback Vince Young but Young’s speed couldn’t be simulated in practice and the Trojans had no way to account for Young on the field.
“USC had a great defense drawn up to stop Vince Young but Vince Young was faster than their guys,” Meyer said.
Meyer added, “This is why we spend so much time recruiting because you need playmakers. You need difference makers.”
Meyer said that Bubba Caldwell can’t be forgotten in the offense, either. Caldwell is Florida’s fastest player but he is still making the comeback from the broken leg that sidelined after the midway point of the Tennessee game last year.
“Bubba didn’t come off the line of scrimmage because he was rusty,” said Meyer.
Caldwell had three pass receptions for 16 yards, but one of those was on a shovel pass that barely got him back to the line of scrimmage. There were other plays designed for Caldwell that were either checked out of or didn’t materialize because Caldwell is still feeling his way back into playing condition.
“We had a couple of plays selected to right to him but for a variety of reasons they didn’t happen,” said Meyer. “He’s a big part of this. We need him. We just have to get him back.”
Meyer feels that Caldwell has to get into a good rhythm once again. He said Caldwell was just getting into a really good playing rhythm last year when he got hurt.
“That’s the tough thing about this game,” said Meyer. “When you get into a rhythm like Jemalle Cornelius against Kentucky last year he had the best game of his career and sure enough the next game he sprains his ankle because somebody fails to give effort on kickoff return and doesn’t block his guy. The same thing happened with Bubba.”
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Meyer felt that center Steven Rissler and guard Drew Miller played fairly well on the offensive line but that tackles Phil Trautwein and Carlton Medder along with guard Jim Tartt played like they haven’t played much football. While alluding to the fact that Southern Miss showed that old John Thompson influence, playing an unconventional defense that at times had one down lineman and seven or eight players standing in the box, Meyer noted that the Gators will have to use week two to show vast improvement in the play of the line.
The lack of push from the line contributed to a running game that Meyer also said needs some improvement. The Gators finished with 143 yards rushing but 58 of that came from Harvin from the slot.
Though the line was having its problems, the Gators did get good production out of senior tailback DeShawn Wynn before he was pulled from the game with a neck stinger. Wynn had 45 yards and a touchdown on seven carries including a 24-yard run and an 11-yarder.
“He was running hard before he got hurt,” said Meyer.
With Wynn sidelined and Markus Manson out with a thigh bruise, that left sophomore Kestahn Moore as the only available tailback. Moore went the entire second half at tailback and finished the game with 12 carries for 51 yards, but Meyer knows he’s got to get more production from his tailback position. That means that freshman Mon Williams will be prepped and readied to play this week and it could also mean that Harvin could see some snaps from the tailback position.
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Meyer said that if senior defensive tackles Marcus Thomas and Steve Harris do all the things they’re supposed to do and practice hard this week that they will play against Central Florida next Saturday in The Swamp. Harris has been coming back from a suspension that lasted from the spring through the summer but Thomas was a bit of a surprise.
Meyer said that he’s got expectations for players to maintain their on and off the field conduct at a certain level and if they don’t, they won’t play but he’s not going to worry about who is and who isn’t playing.
“We have UCF coming in and Tennessee after that,” he said. “We don’t have time to worry about players that didn’t play.”
Without Harris and Thomas to collapse the middle of the Southern Miss offensive line, the Gators didn’t get the consistent pressure on the quarterback from ends Jarvis Moss and Ray McDonald.
“I thought Jarvis did a good job,” he said. “He an edge pressure player and edge pressure players, if you have no push up the middle, the quarterback can step up and deliver the ball.”
Meyer added that with Harris, Thomas, Javier Estopinan and Clint McMillan playing there should be a good push up the middle.
“If you’re rotating those four guys and Joe Cohen in there you got a little depth and I think Jarvis and Ray Mac will be more effective,” said Meyer.
Meyer said that McDonald’s lack of production was partly because he was rusty. McDonald missed nearly all of last season with a knee problem. He had both knees operated on in the offseason so he’s really getting into contact now for the first time since last year.
“Ray McDonald was rusty and he didn’t use his hands very well,” said Meyer.
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Meyer thought he got good play from the cornerback position after the first series. Reggie Lewis, who got a couple of starts at the end of last season, had an interception that he ran back 35 yards and he also had a pass breakup. At the other corner Ryan Smith had 4.5 tackles and Tremaine McCollum had two tackles.
“Tremaine McCollum gave up a touchdown on the first possession and Ryan Smith, that first pass to the tight end, we had an alignment issue,” said Meyer. “So for the first game they played fairly well. I think we played an inexperienced quarterback and that kind of helped but they have to be much better this week.”