The Florida Gators enter the 2006 season with question marks on the offensive line and at cornerback. From their 2005 team, the Gators lost four of five starters on the offensive line and the top three cornerbacks including both starters. Most of the replacements are young guys who have never played before including several freshmen so there’s a whole lotta coaching going in on Gainesville.
Assistant Coaches Steve Addazio and John Hevesy are in charge of making sure that the troops are ready on the offensive line. Their job is to find give guys that can crack open big holes for the running backs and keep Chris Leak’s jersey clean when he’s back to pass. As coaches, they have their hands full this year with a young, inexperienced line that has the second fewest starts (17) among any Division I football program. Ten of Florida’s 17 starts are by center Steve Rissler and all his starting assignments are at guard. Only Duke has fewer games started by offensive linemen with 12.
Here are the NCAA Division 1 schools with the fewest number of starts among offensive linemen:
1. Duke 12
2. FLORIDA 17
3. Syracuse 20
4. Cincinnati 22
Addazio and Hevesy certainly have their work cut out for them, but as it turns out they will have a little help. Enter “coaches” Joe Cohen, Steven Harris, Ray McDonald, Jarvis Moss, and Marcus Thomas. They make up the defensive line for the Gators and they come to practice every day with a chip on their collective shoulders. They have the second most starts among defensive lines in the SEC.
Here are the SEC Schools with the most starts among defensive linemen:
1. Mississippi State 64
2. FLORIDA 60
3. Arkansas 42
4. Kentucky 41
5. Alabama 38
6. Vanderbilt 30
Florida’s D-line is long in the tooth in terms of playing experience with six of the seven top tacklers from last year returning. Tackles Marcus Thomas and Steven Harris started every game for the Gators a year ago. Combined with Ray McDonald (who missed seven games in 2005 due to injury) and Jarvis Moss, the defensive linemen have seen action in 112 games and have totaled 60 starts.
Can you just imagine a snarling Thomas over a freshman saying, “Son, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you”? Then ball is snapped and the freshman is on his backside because he stood up a little too fast and Thomas used the freshman’s own momentum to finish toppling him over. It’s all about learning experiences.
Coach Hevesy loves the fact his guys have to go against the best every day. He can see exactly what he is getting and knows that playing these animals will pay off huge all season.
“We can’t ask for anything better,” Hevesy said. “When we evaluate we look at if are we good or not. Well if the guys aren’t very good across from us, then how good are we? Those guys across from us now are as good as we will face. We know if we can block these guys we can block anyone. There is nothing better than that for me than young guys to have great guys across from them every day. They will only make them better.”
The lessons learned from the players on the offensive line are not lost on them. Drew Miller has been moved lately, but spent the early part of fall camp playing tackle. Matched against speed rushers and power rushers on the edge, he knows he learned a lot.
“I think this is one of the best defensive lines in the country, if not the best,” Miller said after a week of practice. “Going against Derrick (Harvey) and Jarvis (Moss) every day is really making me better and getting me prepared for all the SEC talent.”
Sure, the defensive line wins more than their share of the battles on the practice field. That can only be expected with such a disparity in experience. Little by little the offensive line is catching up. Co-Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach Greg Mattison can see it from his counterparts. He thinks the Gator group will be a good one.
“I think the offensive line is one of the most improved parts of this football team,” Mattison said earlier in fall drills. “I think Coach Addazio, Hevesy, and that group have come on. I said it in the spring. I noticed it immediately. There is a spark there and great camaraderie and great pride. Those kids can play. I have no question about that.”
For the guys coaching the youngsters, they just want to see a willingness to compete. All of them have the ability to play at the highest level of college football, but is their youth and inexperience going to make them too timid to go against the big boys they will face in the SEC. Hevesy is seeing that fight in the younger guys.
“They are both sticking their face in there,” Hevesy said about true freshmen Marcus Gilbert and Jim Barrie after one week of practice. “With both of them, that is all we want. We want them to stick their face in there and go hit someone in the mouth. Just stick your face in there and see what happens.”
Mattison notices the young offensive linemen are really putting up a good effort. “Other years if a second (team player) came in or someone went down with an injury there was a glaring difference, and I don’t see that,” he said.
Of course the offensive line isn’t the only true inexperienced unit on the squad. The Gators have somewhat seasoned players at the safety position, but at cornerback, Reggie Lewis’ two starts are the total for the position. Reggie Nelson, who may start at the other cornerback spot, did start all of last season, but he was a safety all year. The experience factor is nil.
Defensive back coach Chuck Heater has his hands full with training up players to go against SEC level competition. Lucky for him he will have help from “coaches” Bubba Caldwell, Jemalle Cornelius, Dallas Baker, and Kenneth Tookes. Those four comprise as experienced and talented bunch of receivers the Gator cornerbacks will see all season.
Andre Caldwell, Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius have combined for 211 career catches, 2,969 yards and 18 touchdowns in their careers. The last time UF’s top three returning receivers from the previous year brought back higher career totals was 1993, with the likes of Jack Jackson, Willie Jackson and Harrison Houston.
Heater loves the looks the receivers give his troops every day in practice. He thinks he has a real understanding of where his cornerbacks are in terms of preparation against talent that will most likely not be as good as what they face in practice.
“That is tremendous,” Heater said. “We know if we can cover these guys we can cover anyone. It’s a great way to evaluate on a daily basis in what we are getting done. It is a great asset to us to have great wide receivers. So far we are hanging in there. The older players I know what to expect, it is the younger players that is a shock to their system.”
Reggie Lewis will start at one of the cornerback spots and is really the grizzled veteran at the position. He saw time last year in SEC competition and he knows what kind of talent he faces every day in practice. He sees nothing but positives going against the best.
“I think it will pay off,” Lewis said. “Sticking our receivers every day will help us a lot during the season. We have one of the top receiver groups in the country. I think they know what they are doing and are that much faster than last year because of it.”
It is a little tougher on the rookies. The freshman are stepping off of high school football fields and going against All-SEC competition. Talk about a quick learning curve. Jacques Rickerson is one of the freshmen learning the ropes the hard way.
“It is pretty hard,” Rickerson said. “They are experienced and I am a freshman. I feel like we have the best receivers. By going against the best, I feel like if I can stop them I can stop anyone.”
The Gators will line up a week from Saturday with very limited experience on the offensive line and at cornerback. They will also take the field with nine more coaches than the opposition for those two areas of concern.
From the sounds of reports coming from inside the shaded fences of the practice facility, it seems like the young guys are being coached up to play better than expected.