It was in the late 1960s that Hank Stram, the Kansas City Chiefs coach that thought speed and elusiveness was far more important than size, unleashed Noland “Super Gnat” Smith onto the NFL scene. Smith was a 5-6, 160-pound kick returning dynamo that proved to be a game changer. He forced opponents to spend valuable practice time re-scheming their entire approach to kick and punt coverage.
As a rookie, Smith led the NFL in kickoff returns, averaging more than 28 yards and taking one back 106 yards for a touchdown. He led the league in punt returns his second year, averaging 15 yards per return and taking one back 80 yards for a touchdown. He was well on his way toward leading the league in both categories in year three (31.3 average per kickoff return) when he was clotheslined by Oakland’s Ben Davidson while running a punt back down the sideline. Smith suffered a serious neck injury and he never quite recovered but his impact on the game was lasting. Smith helped open the door at least in the kick return game for little guys that can make people miss and then turn on the jets for big yardage.
Fast forward to 2006 and the Florida Gators have unleashed their own version of “Super Gnat” in Brandon James, the freshman from St. Augustine. After a couple of huge returns against Tennessee Saturday night — one for 35 yards that would have resulted in a score except that he was tripped (no call however) by the UT punter and the other for 91 yards that was called back for an illegal block (very questionable) — the Vols were so aware of James that they altered their kickoff strategy. After the Vols had kicked a field goal to improve their lead to 20-14, James Wilhoit tried to angle the ball away from James but the strategy backfired when he kicked out of bounds, giving the Gators favorable field position on their own 35. Eight plays later, Chris Leak connected with Dallas Baker for a touchdown to tie the game and Chris Hetland added the extra point that provided the difference in the game.
James injected so much juice into the Florida return game that Coach Urban Meyer said at his Monday media gathering, “I can’t wait until Saturday. I can’t wait to draw those pictures up there trying to get him good returns.”
Meyer loves James now, but back in the fall of 2005 the size issue was a real factor. Meyer had offered a scholarship to James’ brother, cornerback Jacques Rickerson, but size was a big enough issue that he kept resisting every time St. Augustine Coach Joey Wiles or his own co-defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, approached him about James.
Meyer said he “questioned them, challenged them” but every time he did, they came back by saying “you’ve got to take him. You have to. You have to. You have to.”
Meyer caved in and James committed Thanksgiving weekend after Florida’s 34-7 win over FSU in The Swamp, one day after Rickerson had said yes to Meyer. There was a lot of speculation that James was a throw-in, a requirement to reel in Rickerson, rated one of the nation’s top corners, but if there were any lingering doubts, they were erased Saturday night when James lit up Tennessee.
Against the Vols, Meyer said that James had “he had two phenomenal returns” (the first was for 35 yards and would have gone the distance if the UT kicker hadn’t stuck out a leg and tripped him) but it was the second one that left the coach salivating and thinking about how to figure out new return schemes. James took a long punt from Dustin Colquitt at his own nine, then proceeded to dance, duck and dodge his way through the bulk of the Vol defenders before he crossed the field all the way to the north sideline where he cut upfield and sprinted toward the goal. Once he got somewhere around the 20 it looked like the gig was over, but James made it through those final defenders to get into the end zone. Even though the play was called back because of a penalty, this was like unleashing a brand new weapon that the entire Southeastern Conference will have to plan for. Meyer was just blown away watching James cut through the Vol defenders.
“He was boxed in,” Meyer recalled. “Four Tennessee defenders and the kicker had him boxed in. He stopped and went lateral without breaking stride and took it down the sideline.”
Perhaps Meyer was surprised but Florida linebacker Brandon Siler more or less expected it.
“I’ve been telling coach about Brandon James since he got here this summer so I knew what Brandon James could do,” said Siler, who told his teammates “Uh oh, come on guys, get up … let’s watch him.”
Siler knows how hard it is to tackle James, listed at 5-7 but by his own admission 5-6-1/2. Back in August during two-a-days, Siler would take James aside and do his best to tackle the little guy one-on-one, a difficult enough task that Siler would only admit “he would win a couple and I would win a couple.
“I would take him out if nobody was watching because if he was shaking me I wanted to get better. I would make him put in extra time because I wanted to put in extra time and take him out there by myself.”
Those tackling drills convinced Siler that “Every time he [James] touches the ball back there we know that he’s capable of making a big play. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
James didn’t know he was going to return punts against Tennessee until just a few moments before Meyer sent him out on the field. He had practiced hard all week but as the backup to Reggie Nelson. When Meyer called his name, he wasn’t nervous, just ready to do the job.
“Before the game I thought I was going to have a little bit of jitters with the crowd being it was such a big game but once I stepped on the field I was pretty calm and ready to play,” he said.
Nelson wasn’t upset that his punt return job was taken over by a freshman. Like the rest of Florida’s veterans, he edged a little closer to the sideline to get a better look when the little guy went back to field his first punt.
“I love watching Brandon James,” said Nelson. “I thought he was going to do something last week [against UCF] but he showed what he had this week. He did real good during a big game, so we know he can play in big games. That is one less person we have to worry about.”
James proved he belongs on the field with the big guys in the big games, but last fall, he had plenty of doubters, one of which was Meyer. James really wanted to be a Gator and he wanted to play at Florida along with his brother, but it took awhile for the scholarship offer to materialize. He understands that the size question was the big obstacle.
“My whole career people have been telling me you can’t play at a big college because of your size,” he said Monday afternoon. Size didn’t prevent James from tearing it up at St. Augustine. He made All-State and the Orlando Sentinel’s All-South team while leading the Yellow Jackets to the Florida 3A championship. He ran five kicks back for touchdowns and rushed for more than 1,500 yards in St. Augustine’s unbeaten season. “My height was a factor the whole time but it didn’t bother me because I knew once I got the opportunity to show him [Meyer] that he would like what he sees.”
Meyer recruited him primarily as a kick return specialist but once James made it to Gainesville, it didn’t take long to discover that while James may not have the ideal size for a tailback, he has great instincts and the ability to make people miss. James was looking like a candidate to play in the tailback rotation early on in August, but he injured his knee and that required surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
The rehab from the knee injury set him back as far as getting on the field as part of Florida’s offensive unit, but a quick recovery enabled him to see his first action in game two against Central Florida when he ran a kickoff back 30 yards. That was just the first sign of things to come and after the UT game, James has Gators from Meyer on down thinking the return game is going to be exciting for quite some time.
“He’s 4-foot-3 or whatever,” Meyer joked Monday. “You hate to say it but certain guys you like to coach and some guys you don’t. That kid is unbelievable. Ask our weight staff and he’s an elite lifter. He’s a competitor. He’s a special guy. I’m just jacked to have him three more years.”
As for James, he’s just trying to keep it all in perspective. He would rather let his play on the field do all the talking.
“I’ll just come to practice, work hard and see what the coaches say,” he said.
MEDIA DAY NOTES: Meyer said that quarterback Chris Leak has elevated his game in so many ways and overall, he’s very pleased with what he’s seen. However, he wasn’t completely happy with the way the senior went into a slide and came up short on a critical third down play in the fourth quarter against Tennessee. “To be honest with you my reaction was probably the same as everybody else’s but then it went onto the next play and get the first down,” said Meyer. “I saw what he saw but we expect him to get the first down. I never say stick your head in there but get the first down.” On fourth down, the Gators got the yard they needed when Tim Tebow came in and ran for two yards. Tebow had seven carries for 29 yards against the Vols with four of those carries resulting in first downs on third or fourth down situations.
Tebow said he wasn’t nervous when Meyer sent him in to get a first down in a critical situation.
“I was excited when (Coach Meyer) put me in,” he said. “I just wanted to go in there and do my job. I was just thinking that I did not want to let the team down.”
Meyer said he’s not worried about the lack of sacks by defensive end Jarvis Moss because Moss is getting so much pressure on quarterbacks that he’s forcing them into mistakes, plus it has opened things up in the middle of the defensive line for Marcus Thomas, who has three sacks in two games.
“Teams understand we have a monster on the outside and that’s helping the guys on the inside,” said Meyer.
CHAMPION GRADES: Grading champion on Florida’s defense were Ray McDonald, Joe Cohen, Steven Harris, Reggie Nelson, Brandon Siler and Tremaine McCollum. Co-Players of the Game on defense were Jarvis Moss and Earl Everett. Meyer said Everett “probably played his best game ever.”
On offense, grading champion were Carlton Medder, Chris Leak, Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Cornelius Ingram and Tebow. Co-Players of the Game on offense were Phil Trautwein and Steve Rissler.