Apparently there are answers to at least one of the pressing questions at the cornerback position as the countdown hits two weeks to go before the Florida Gators open their 2006 season with Southern Mississippi at The Swamp. Senior Reggie Lewis has played so well in the preseason that it is safe to pronounce one of the two corner positions locked down.
Lewis is a fifth-year senior that spent his first three years in Gainesville trying to make the transition from high school quarterback to wide receiver. He made the move to corner last year and ended up starting the last three games of the year due to an injury to Vernell Brown. He followed that up with an outstanding spring and the momentum has carried over into the preseason camp where Lewis has been the most consistent player at his position.
His play in Saturday morning’s scrimmages had Coach Urban Meyer breathing just a little bit easier.
“Reggie Lewis had a good day again today,” said Meyer. “He’s done tremendous. He’s picked up where he left off. He had an excellent spring game. He never really played. He was an offensive player for awhile and then a defensive player but now he’s our best corner.”
Not only has Lewis stepped it up with his play on the field, but he’s become a team leader and a leader by example with his outstanding performance in the classroom.
“He’s being a little more vocal now,” said Meyer. “He’s being a leader which is hard to imagine but I really love Reggie. He’s done everything we’ve asked really since the day we’ve been here.”
With Utah transfer Ryan Smith showing promise and Tremaine McCollum playing better than at any time during his five years at Florida, the other corner is starting to shape up as well. True freshman Markihe Anderson is showing promise as a backup. Smith missed about three fourths of Saturday morning’s practice with what Meyer called “a little bit of a hamstring.”
The situation at corner is improving to the point that Meyer says Reggie Nelson is “bouncing back and forth at safety now.” Ideally, the Gators would like Nelson at free safety, but if Meyer isn’t comfortable with one of the other corners, then Nelson, probably the best athlete on the team, will likely start at the corner opposite Lewis.
The outlook for the cornerback position isn’t what Meyer would call ideal, but it’s getting better.
“I wouldn’t say that [I’m happy] yet because we still have two weeks,” he said.
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There were a few minor dings at Saturday’s practice. Tailbacks DeShawn Wynn and Markus Manson were dinged up and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas had a mild ankle sprain.
“DeShawn Wynn bruised his shoulder,” said Meyer. “We’ll probably keep him out until Monday. Markus Manson [hurt his] back. He’ll practice this afternoon, they’re saying.”
Thomas left practice wearing a boot on his left ankle but Meyer says, “Marcus Thomas is minor. He’ll be back this afternoon or Monday.”
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The injury to Wynn happened on a kickoff drill. Wynn has been constantly dinged up with shoulder problems in his five years at Florida. He had a nagging shoulder problem throughout the season last year that often limited his availability.
“They say it’s the same one [shoulder] but they say it’s a contusion,” said Meyer.
Meyer and running backs coach Stan Drayton have been pushing Wynn hard at every opportunity in the preseason. The in your face approach, Meyer said, might be just what it takes to bring the enormous potential out of Wynn, who is a great physical specimen with size (5-10, 228) and speed. Wynn has more than 1300 yards and 19 touchdowns in his Florida career, numbers you would expect from a back with his physical gifts in one season not over a three-year period.
“Darn kid, I hate to say this but he can’t handle positive reinforcement but he’s been practicing his tail off,” said Meyer. “There are some kids that you coach that just can’t handle it. You give them positive reinforcement and they go out there and don’t practice very hard. What motivates him [Wynn] is a coach in his grill the entire time and I don’t mind doing that if that’s what it takes.”
Meyer said that Wynn and Kestahn Moore are probably his top two tailbacks right now. He believes he needs three ready to go in this offense and added that he’s still looking for the third one to step it up.
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Also on the injury front, linebacker Jon Demps will likely go ahead with surgery to repair his ACL.
“I think he’s going to have surgery so he’ll redshirt and then he’ll be back next year with three years left,” said Meyer. “That’s what they’ve told me I don’t know if that’s final yet.”
Meyer said that other than the injury to Demps and a broken ankle by guard Ronnie Wilson, the nicks and dings in preseason camp haven’t been all that bad considering the physical nature of the practices.
“It hasn’t been a bad camp,” said Meyer. “The one bad one is that darn Demps … two bad ones, Demps and Ronnie [Wilson]. Those are the bad ones. Everything else, every team in America has it if they’re having physical practices like we’re having.”
Defensive end Ray McDonald, who is returning from ACL surgery on both knees, got to see limited contact Saturday morning.
“He’s not doing the live contact but he’s doing the contact pass rush and the two minute stuff at the end of the game so he’s pretty close to game ready,” said Meyer.
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Freshman safety Bryan Thomas, who burst a blood vessel the first day of practice in the same area that he had arthroscopic surgery in the summer, has been spending his time working out daily in The Pit. That hasn’t stopped him from working hard enough to get the black stripe removed off his helmet.
“First time he’s ever been de-striped in The Pit,” said Meyer. “That usually doesn’t happen. Matt Bailis (assistant strength and conditioning coach) said he’s got a great attitude.”
Thomas could be back practicing in another week to ten days.
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Meyer is starting to like what he’s seeing of the offense, and in particular, quarterback Chris Leak. Leak continued his impressive play in the preseason Saturday morning.
“I think Chris Leak is playing his best football, I really do,” said Meyer. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think, I know that. We did a situation with a minute and 10 left, one timeout and we had to get to the 20 yard line to kick a field goal. He did an excellent job twice right down the field so I’m very pleased with Chris.”
The area that Meyer is most concerned with on the offense is the right tackle position. When Wilson broke his ankle last week, Meyer moved Drew Miller from right tackle to Wilson’s guard position, leaving the tackle slot to junior Carlton Medder and sophomore Jason Watkins.
“We’ve got to get that tackle position solidified,” said Meyer. “Carlton Medder has got to improve and so does Watkins.”