The big news Tuesday afternoon at Florida’s football practice was the first confirmed Marcus Thomas sighting since right after the Tennessee game. Thomas, who has been suspended from all team activities for failure to pass a second drug test, was on the practice field doing some conditioning drills but Coach Urban Meyer said he is not back with the team yet.
“He worked out a little bit earlier today on his own, not with the team,” said Meyer, who is preparing the fifth-ranked Gators to go against the ninth-ranked LSU Tigers Saturday.
Asked when Thomas will be allowed back on the team, Meyer said, “That’s out of my hands, I don’t know … nothing new on where we stood before as of today.”
Meanwhile, the Gators are prepping to go against the number one team in the nation in total defense (193.4 yards per game) and number two in the nation against scoring (7.4 points per game). The Tigers are the third-ranked team in the country against the pass (124.2 yards per game). They’ve allowed just one touchdown pass while picking off nine passes.
Tulane’s 231 yards is the most against LSU this season. Mississippi State is the only team to pass for more than 200 yards (212) and Louisiana-Lafayette rushed for 113 yards, most against the Tiger defense.
Meyer knows that the LSU defense is the fastest and most talented that he’s faced so far. Defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, Meyer says, is one of the most imaginative and creative coordinators in the country and his ability to bring pressure from so many different angles gives the LSU defense a distinct edge.
“They’re very creative,” said Meyer. “I would have to say they are one of the more creative [defenses] and they’re extremely well coached. A lot of times you play teams that do all that stuff they do and they’re not sound and you can catch them. This team is very sound.”
Pelini does a tremendous job of mixing up his coverage and blitz packages. LSU can give a team so many looks and bring the blitz from so many different places that it makes it hard to game plan.
“You game plan for concepts,” said Meyer. “I’m sure they do the same thing on offense. We try to give them multiple looks and to game plan our offense you have to game plan offense you have to game plan concepts. Same thing on defense. There are only so many blitzes you bring from the field so we have to be prepared. They bring them all and the same thing for boundaries. It’s a field concept, a boundary concept and a middle concept. That’s how we game plan. They run every blitz, every concept you can imagine they do it.”
The Tigers have the SEC leader in sacks in defensive end Tyson Jackson (5.5) and his bookend, Chase Pittman, is fifth with four sacks. In the secondary, LSU safety Craig Steltz is tied with Florida’s Reggie Nelson for the SEC lead in interceptions with four while LSU corner Jonathon Zenon has four interceptions, two that he’s taken back for touchdowns.
In LSU’s 21-17 win over the Gators in Baton Rouge last year, it was the Tigers’ ability to get pressure on UF quarterback Chris Leak that was the difference in the game. LSU’s pressure and Florida’s lack of healthy playmakers contributed mightily to the Florida loss. Meyer knows that if the Gators are to win this year, he has to have a better game from Leak and his healthy playmakers at the wide receiver positions.
“I feel better about our quarterback position getting us in the right stuff,” he said. “I feel better about the playmakers. Dallas [Baker] and Jemalle [Cornelius] were not very healthy [last year] and Chad Jackson, if I remember, was beat up going into this game.
“We should be relatively healthy. Percy [Harvin] is the guy we’ve got to get back on the edge. Then you wish we had DeShawn Wynn. I do feel much better about it than we did a year ago.”
Percy Harvin is still limited by a high ankle sprain. Meyer was hoping he would get a full, fast practice out of Harvin on Tuesday but the coach said his talented freshman is still gimpy.
“I was hoping he would be further advanced and today is Tuesday,” said Meyer, who noted that Harvin did practice “a little bit but didn’t do a full practice today.”
Wynn, who twisted a knee in the third quarter of Florida’s 28-13 win over Alabama, didn’t practice either, but Meyer says there is hope that his 230-pound senior tailback will be ready to go Saturday.
“I asked Mickey [Marotti, strength and conditioning coach] today any chance and he said yes there’s a chance,” said Meyer. “I’ll know more tomorrow. He should be out here tomorrow.”
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Meyer is also quite concerned with LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, ranked second in the nation in pass efficiency. The big fourth-year junior has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. He’s completing passes at a 70.43 percent clip. Russell is 6-6, 220, and while he’s not much of a running threat, he does have good mobility and that is a huge concern for the Gators.
“You’ll hear someone say he’s not very mobile but that’s not true,” said Meyer. “A lot of his damage is done when he gets outside the pocket. He’s extremely strong, a good athlete. He doesn’t run the ball much but a lot of his plays are made when he’s outside the pocket.”
Meyer says the Gators must counter Russell by bringing plenty of pressure. Florida forced Russell into two interceptions last year and the Gators sacked the big guy five times.
“You have to put pressure on him like we did last year,” said Meyer. “He has great size and great strength and probably one of the strongest arms in the country, one of the strongest arms I’ve seen.”
When Russell throws, chances are it’s going to one of his big three receivers — Craig Davis, Dwayne Bowe or Early Doucet. They are a tremendous combination of size and outstanding speed. Meyer says they are “as fine a receivers as there are in the country. They’ll be playing in the NFL for many years.”
Davis has caught 25 passes for 394 yards (15.8 per catch) and one touchdown, while Bowe has 21 receptions for 353 yards (16.8 per catch) and three touchdowns. Doucet, the fastest of the three, has 18 catches for 272 yards (15.1 per catch) and four touchdowns.
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Meyer said that the Gators are comfortable with freshman receiver Jarred Fayson in the game and now he’s got to get the ball in his hands. Meyer said the true freshman from Tampa played 20-25 plays against Alabama although he didn’t get the ball in his hands one time. Meyer said that Fayson should expect to see the ball in his hands this week.
Because Wynn is questionable at tailback for Saturday’s game, sophomore Kestahn Moore has stepped it up as the number one tailback in practice. Third year sophomore Markus Manson has moved into the backup position at tailback on the strength of good practices last week and this week.
“Markus Manson actually practiced fairly well today,” said Meyer. “We’ll be okay at tailback. We’d like to have DeShawn back but we’ll know about that tomorrow.”
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Javier Estopinan got his first start ever as a Gator against Alabama and the third-year sophomore from Miami graded out champion. Meyer likes the toughness and attitude that Estopinan brings to his defensive tackle position and to the special teams.
“He’s on my punt team,” said Meyer. “You’re an elite player to be on the punt team. He a ‘maximus’ lifter, a guy you can count on. He’s everything you want.”
A “maximus” lifter, Meyer said, is someone that Marotti grades out above champion club in the weight room.
“He [Marotti] has got a handful of guys you can’t mess with and he [Estopinan] is one of them.”
Estopinan, a former state champ in wrestling, came to Florida as a linebacker. He’s a 275-pound defensive tackle now.