It’s not unusual to see a pair of Gator athletes walking around campus, but it may be a bit unusual to see a football player walking around with a basketball player in the middle of the night, talking about how to make their teams better.
Yet, on any given night, you could find football safety Tony Joiner and basketball center Joakim Noah strolling around campus at 3 a.m. with the conversation often revolving around leadership.
“Joakim is a close friend of mine and we talk a lot,” Joiner said. “We are similar players. He’s kind of the vocal leader for the basketball team. He’s the energy and the juice guy, and I’m the same with football. I get everyone going and try to keep the team chemistry up. Joakim is a very intelligent young man, and I love to just hear him talk.”
What do the two talk about? Joiner said he looks to Noah for inspiration.
“Joakim is a champion,” Joiner said. “He leads by example. He does things right on the field, right off the field, and there are really never issues with him. His team is playing wonderfully. They just won their second national title, and just listening to a winner, it makes you feel like you’re a winner. It makes you want to go and talk to the football team like that. He’s just inspirational every time I talk to him.”
Joiner transferred Noah’s winning aura to the football team, helping them capture the BCS national championship nine months after Noah led the Gators to their first basketball national championship. With spring ball well underway, Joiner needs advice from his friend now more than ever. The defense that carried the Gators to its win over Ohio State in January lost nine of 11 starters. With Derrick Harvey sitting out the rest of the spring because of a sports hernia, it’s up to Joiner to be the leader of the defense.
“I am one of the vocal leaders, but I think with the defense as a whole, you don’t take too much credit for anything because we have a bunch of young guys,” Joiner said. “I’m just a guy that’s going to do my job too.”
Joiner said the younger players look to Harvey and Brandon Spikes in addition to himself, but as far as he’s concerned the defense isn’t as bad off this spring as some might think. There is experience, but it’s untested. Then again, last spring the defense was somewhat untested as well.
“We lost chemistry, and with our defense last year, we lost a lot of talent,” Joiner said. “Looking at the young guys we have – Spikes, (Dustin) Doe, (A.J.) Jones and our line – it’s going to be different, but it’s going to be different in a good way. We’re going to come out and execute and have a good defense.”
The biggest hole is within his own unit. The secondary lost all its experienced corners and All-American Reggie Nelson at safety. Joiner, though, said it’s not that much different from last spring. The Gators headed into the 2006 spring without cornerbacks Dee Webb and Vernell Brown and lost safety Jarvis Herring. It wasn’t until Utah-transfer Ryan Smith arrived in the fall that things started to improve.
“(Last spring) was a huge confusion for us,” Joiner said. “We were talking to Coach Heater everyday, and talking to Coach Meyer and Coach Holliday and our defensive coordinators. Who are we going to have at corner? We lost Avery Atkins, and we really didn’t know where we were heading. Jermaine McCollum wasn’t really proven at the time, and Reggie Lewis wasn’t really proven at the time. We were in a world of hurt, but some how we came together. Ryan Smith was a gift from God, and it all came together.”
Dealing with the uncertainty of last spring has helped Joiner deal with this year’s situation in the secondary with more confidence.
“Right now, we’re still trying to find our secondary,” he said. “We know we’re not as good as we want to be, but if you look, we are at about the same place we were last spring. In the back end, we had no identity back there. As the summer progressed, we got to know each other better and play with each other more, and when two-a-days came, we developed some. That’s where we are right now.”
There is no shortage of bodies, although they haven’t been healthy at all times this spring. Joiner is excited about Markihe Anderson and Joe Haden. He also thinks the move to corner for Markus Manson is a move in the right direction.
Safety, though, is another story. It will be near impossible to lose the kind of energy that Nelson brought to the back end, but Joiner likes the way Bryan Thomas and Jamar Hornsby have looked during the spring workouts. Plus, he said Kyle Jackson is playing with more focus after losing his starting job.
“Kyle is a great friend of mine, and we talk on and off the field,” Joiner said. “He’s coming at it a different way. He knows he slacked off, but a great player replaced him – Reggie Nelson. He beat him out. There is sort of a knack that he has for his position and he’s showing it everyday.”
Joiner admits the defense has a long way to go, but there is one thing they have going for them. Using last season as evidence, they know how to win, which reminds Joiner of another conversation he had with Noah.
“Like Joakim says, it’s never really tough when you’re winning,” Joiner said. “When he has a bad game, he doesn’t dwell on it. He never really talks about himself having a bad game, only when he has a great game.”
Joiner hopes that he can rely that kind of attitude to the defense when it’s time for the Gators to defend its football title in the fall.