The good news came in a text message to Urban Meyer while he was talking on the field prior to meeting up with the media after Thursday afternoon’s practice session. Meyer was understandably happy when defensive tackle Steven Harris let him know that he got an A in a class where a good grade was critical.
Harris, who has been suspended from the Florida football team since the spring, has been working hard to regain his place on the team. The 6-4, 290-pounder from Coral Gables had to take care of some academic work in summer school to fulfill requirements set by Meyer.
“He actually got an A in something he had to get a good grade in,” said Meyer. “He’s got two finals on Friday — summer B ends Friday. He’s eligible. It’s not an eligibility issue but we’re trying to get him graduated and he’s got to fulfill his obligation.”
Harris started all 12 games last year for the Gators. He’s an experienced defensive lineman that is a nice component on a unit that should rank among the best in the nation but for the past few months, his status has been in doubt. He was suspended for all of spring practice.
To get back on the team, Harris had to fulfill a number of requirements set down by Meyer and the team. Critical to Meyer was that Harris complete the school work necessary for graduation.
Meyer said that Harris would likely be reinstated on Sunday “If he finishes … which he’ll finish it now I know. Today I got the good news. He texted me about 10 minutes ago and he got that A so he’ll graduate, have that internship and he’s done in December.
“They said it couldn’t be done but he did it!”
The news is also good for another defensive lineman, end/tackle Ray McDonald, who is recovering from dual ACL surgeries. He hasn’t been allowed to participate in any contact drills so far but Meyer indicated that it’s because the staff is just being cautious.
“He can probably go right now but he’s played three years of football so we’re being awfully cautious with him,” said Meyer. “He’s been cleared but we’re not letting him go. At the right time we’ll let him go and I’m not sure when that is.”
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Freshman defensive tackle Terron Sanders was taken away by ambulance after going down during a drill, apparently after a blow to the head. Meyer said Dr. Pete Indelicato and paramedics indicated that taking him away for further observation was “precautionary.”
“Terron Sanders just got hurt in a drill,” said Meyer. “They say he’ll be fine. He got hit. Dr. Pete and those guys said it was all precautionary.”
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The search for a tailback took a step in the right direction Thursday. Senior DeShawn Wynn returned after missing two days with a high fever. He ran hard throughout the practice but he punctuated his return with a 60-yard run for a touchdown on an option pitch from Chris Leak.
“I guess that was a lot like that one a few years ago like when he ran fast and no one touched him and he scored [Miami 2004],” said Meyer. “That was good. It was good to see that. We need to find a tailback, that’s no secret.”
The Thursday standouts in the tailback search were opposite ends of the spectrum. Wynn, the largest of the tailbacks, is 5-10, 233 and a fifth-year senior. The other standout was true freshman Brandon James, a 5-7, 175-pounder from St. Augustine.
“Brandon will play,” said Meyer. “He’s a dynamic player.”
James has been impressive the way he hides behind his linemen then squirts through the smallest crease in the line. Once he’s in the secondary, he’s got the moves and the ability to be at full speed in a matter of a couple of strides. He runs so low to the ground that he’s tough to bring down with a single hit.
The infusion of speed and playmaking ability that James has added to the position is welcomed by Meyer who was frustrated last year by the Gators’ inability to make big plays either on the ground or in the passing game.
“You know that study that the NFL did, if you start at normal field position and you do not have a big play — a 12 yard run or 16 yard pass — your chances of scoring are only 10 percent,” said Meyer. “If you have one big play it’s up to 50 percent, two of them 80 percent.
“Last year we were not a big play team. The USCs and some of those teams that score a lot of points and I’ve been around some teams that score a lot of points, you have big play after big play and we didn’t do that. When we got in the open field we went down instead of making guys miss so we’re spending a lot of time working on that and evaluating who can do it. If you can’t do it we’re not going to hand you the ball.”
Last year, Florida’s only real dynamic player in the open field was wide receiver Bubba Caldwell. When he was lost for the season midway through game three, it was a severe blow to Florida’s offensive scheme. Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius spent the season playing through injuries so they weren’t so effective in the open field, either.
Caldwell’s back and looking better than ever and both Cornelius and Baker are healthy and showing elusiveness in practice.
“When Bubba went down I think that hurt us,” said Meyer. “Dallas, Jemalle Cornelius [can make people miss] … we’ve got to find a running back that can do it.”
James has been making people miss and so have fellow freshmen Percy Harvin and Jarred Fayson.
“Brandon James is one of them [that makes people miss] and some of those young cats are,” said Meyer. “Some of those older guys have just got to do it.”
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James, along with two other freshmen, got the stripe off his helmet Thursday. Cornerback Markihe Anderson, who had an interception in Wednesday’s practice, lost the stripe as did linebacker A.J. Jones, playing linebacker full time after a couple of days experimenting at safety.
Meyer said that Jones and fellow freshman linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe will be on the field this fall. Their emergence has eased concerns about depth at the linebacker position.
“The three freshmen are going to play,” said Meyer, “and (redshirt freshman Ryan) Stamper is getting a little better and (sophomore Jon) Demps is getting a little better. Last year we were holding our breath.”
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With new rules about starting the clock sooner to cut back on the time of games, there have been concerns that it will cost teams quite a few plays each game. Meyer said he and his staff have been researching that issue and they don’t see that it will cause too many problems.
“We spent about two hours going through it and we counted maybe eight plays,” said Meyer. “If it’s a game when want to suck the clock out of it, you can use every possession and go out there and wait and use 22-23 seconds … eight times 22-23 that’s a lot of time gone. We have a plan in place that we’ll go right from the sideline to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball to get things going instead of losing that 22 seconds. I’m sure most teams will have that in their package as well.”
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Thursday was the first day in full pads with full contact and Meyer was pleased with what he saw.
“Today I told the team that they like football,” said Meyer. “At times last year I was really worried about this team really loving everything about football. When you see guys pushing each other around a little bit and enjoying it and having fun and talking at each other — you want a little bit of it, not too much — but on a 100 degree day that was pretty good to be able to do that.”