Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney entered the media room on Tuesday with questions in his own mind about his troop. He did his best to answer media questions and talked about individuals we should see this fall.
There is one true leader on the defensive line. Javier Estopinan has been through a lot in his five-year career at Florida. The 6-3, 285-pound defensive tackle is playing on three repaired ACL tears. He is someone who McCarney admires.
“I have never heard of it, never seen it,” McCarney said of Estopinan’s performance after three knee surgeries. “It is just an amazing inspiration every day to come to practice and see someone who wants to be a part of the team. He could have taken a medical (hardship) and had his scholarship paid for two surgeries ago. Three ACLs … are you kidding me? And to come back and work as hard he does and help our team, he is an amazing young man, just amazing.
“Javier inspires us everyday, coaches and players alike, just being on the practice field. But it is more than that to him. Javier doesn’t want to just be here and stand around and cheerlead. He wants to help and play and I hope it works out for him. I am letting him decide when he practices and when he doesn’t. His feedback is more important than the doctors and trainers. It’s his knees which have been through three ACLs.”
McCarney was asked if Estopinan will see some time on the field this season.
“Yeah, if he stays healthy he will help us,” McCarney continued. “He will help on our punt team with coach (Urban) Meyer and on the defensive line. When you don’t have a good day, look over at Javier and think what he’s been through and still see him working as hard as he does. I will use Javier as an example as long as I am in coaching. He is as tough as they come. He walks softly and carries a big stick. He doesn’t say much but I am inspired and humbled just being around him.”
There aren’t a lot of grizzled veterans on the defensive line, but one sophomore making his mark is nose guard Lawrence Marsh.
“He is doing better … we have him at nose,” McCarney said. “He is improved right now. He was a 50-50 guy – half the time right, half the time wrong – in the spring. (He was) just good enough to get us beat and I was real honest with him about it. He needed to do some major improvement in his footwork between the end of spring and now. He has done that and made improvement. He hasn’t secured the No. 1 spot, but he clearly will play for us and I feel better about him now than any time last spring.”
True freshman defensive tackle Omar Hunter suffered a back injury shortly after his arrival on campus in May. At this time McCarney still hasn’t seen enough to consider Hunter for playing time in the defensive line rotation.
“There is no evaluation and I can’t tell anything,” McCarney stated. “He’s been with the trainers and hit the sled and that is the only thing I have seen. (But) there are no sleds out there on Game Day. He is a great young man … phenomenal character. But as far as an evaluation as a football player, I just don’t have anything other than high school tape.”
There is a big scrimmage scheduled for Wednesday and McCarney will get to see more of his players though he has several still missing action due to injury.
“A number of guys have been out,” McCarney said. “(Matt) Patchan hasn’t practiced and came out of spring as No. 1. (Terron) Sanders keeps working, Jaye Howard keeps working. Tomorrow is a big day, it’s a big evaluation. It’s game speed, game snaps and we will find out a lot about these guys. The next time we scrimmage is (before) Hawaii.”
One player most were not counting on last summer was walk-on Ron Wilson. A former offensive guard who was kicked off the team in 2007, Wilson is a body that McCarney can see being used in 2008. McCarney has a history of turning offensive linemen into good defensive linemen.
“You never say never. You give guys hope, (you) don’t kill guys’ spirit,” McCarney said. “As coaches we have all seen a three on one side of the ball become a real good two or one on the other side of the ball. That’s good coaching and evaluation. I think Urban does a phenomenal job. We talk about it all the time. Not just switch to switch, but can a guy become a better player and help us more on the other side of the ball. We will see with Wilson. He isn’t a real finesse guy, (with) not a lot of speed and quickness, but he is a bull in there. He is strong, and as we know in the SEC you have to have a lot of guys who can stand in there as men when they are starting to run the ball at you. I think it is going to be a good move for him.”
It’s about making plays on defense, too
Preseason All-America middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is being counted on to lead the defense as a junior in 2008. Spikes finished 2007 with 131 tackles, but isn’t going to take a complacent approach for this season.
“There is always room for improvement,” Spikes said. “I wasn’t satisfied, I felt like I needed to make more plays to change the game. When we needed a play on third down, I just didn’t get the job done. I am just trying to get the job done this year and get off the field. Coach (Charlie) Strong tells me I just have to man up and make the play. When someone else doesn’t make it, I need to make it.”
Part of the plan this season is for Spikes to be a more vocal leader on and off the field. Spikes already feels that has been taking place.
“(It’s) like 150 percent more than last year,” he said. “I am going to be a whole lot more vocal than I was. You have to be a leader because a lot of times if the defense doesn’t play well you they put it on you. In the past I never really said anything to the guys and did my own little thing. Now I try and bring other guys up to my level. Being a middle linebacker for coach Meyer is different.”
Spikes feels better about his role in his second year as a starter. He knows what he has to do with the underclassmen, a group he feels will be a really strong unit.
“I am really comfortable because we go over things every day with guys who have to get ready,” Spikes said. “With them getting reps they are getting some experience. I am now comfortable with every position so I can go with things with them before the ball is snapped.”
One of those young guys really improving is a Jacksonville sophomore who has been getting a lot of attention lately.
“I would have to say Brandon Hicks,” Spikes said. “He is gaining weight and running well and learning his plays a little better.”
Weakside linebacker Dustin Doe has a slight injury which will keep him out of some practice time. In the mind of Brandon Spikes, he and Doe are on the same wave length when it comes to their approach to a strong 2008 season.
“He and I took a different approach this offseason as opposed to our sophomore year,” Spikes said. “We went in and attacked it and took on every challenge our strength coach (Mickey Marotti) threw at us. He has a different attitude about it now. When he steps on the field it is all business.”
Things are different in the secondary this season
Cornerback Joe Haden also sees himself as a leader now in his second year starting in the Gator defense. He also sees the defense really stepping it up a notch or two this year.
“Since I started last year and we have a lot of freshmen,” Haden said, “I have to take the leadership role just to teach them what is going on. Last year we were forced to play. Even if I wasn’t ready I played regardless. This year the freshmen will get to learn more before they get on the field. ”
With safety Dorian Munroe lost for the season with a knee injury, injuries really haven’t derailed the secondary. “There are a whole lot of minor injuries, but they should be back out there soon. The coaches aren’t really pushing them to get back.”
An arsenal of weapons for Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow has a myriad of offensive weapons at his disposal as he prepares for the 2008 season. One key player in the preseason has been slot receiver Brandon James, who was moved from running back to add depth because of Percy Harvin’s nagging heel injury. Tebow believes James will provide his own electricity at the position.
“Brandon is doing a great job,” Tebow said. “Obviously, he has all the elusiveness and quickness that he shows in kick returns and as a scat back. He is doing a great job at learning his routes and understanding coverages and how to run around soft coverages (which) is his toughest job. But he is doing better and by the time Hawaii gets here, he will be a full-bore wide receiver.”
Meyer has made a comment about James’ size (5-7, 186) and that it may be a bit difficult for the quarterbacks to get him the ball at times, but Tebow brushed that off.
“Brandon is a little shorter and not quite as able to stretch out and get balls, but he is very quick,” Tebow said. “So if you misjudge it he can make up for it somewhat. Some of the times in drag routes coming across the field, you have to get the ball up and down because of his size. But he does a great job in making up for his size. I never really worried how small he was and he plays bigger than he really is.”
Running back Kestahn Moore will be asked to play some fullback in the offense in 2008. Moore is the Gators’ best blocking back and will be utilized for that aspect as well as a compliment to other backs on the field at the same time. Tebow loves the intangibles that Moore brings to the table.
“One main thing he can bring is the leadership to the young backs back there,” Tebow said. “He can be that guy who can help them understand every thing – how to read blocks, how to hit the right gap, those things. He is a great receiver, so to run a fullback in the flat or a dump route, motion him out to go to what looks like a four- or five-receiver set, it can be a big asset to us.
Tebow won’t be the only quarterback to play in 2008. One role he has taken to is mentoring the young players who will follow him. Tebow is trying to get Cam Newton and John Brantley as prepared as he possibly can to step in when he isn’t on the field.
“I try to be a mentor or a friend, maybe someone needs a pat on the back or push them a little bit,” Tebow said. “Hopefully (I help them) in a lot of ways because I have been around here longer and understand things a little more. More than one quarterback plays in a season and both are doing a great job of getting ready. They have been improving their strengths and their weaknesses. The main thing we have been working on is being fundamentally prepared and then letting athletic ability take control.”
Tebow has high praise for one of the wide receivers he will count on a lot in the future. Junior college transfer Carl Moore had a rough spring trying to catch onto things. But Moore has worked with Tebow in the offseason and is now one of his main targets. Tebow compares him to another recent wide receiver.
“He is really a Dallas Baker type, very similar to Dallas Baker in a lot of ways,” Tebow said. “We’ve had a great relationship since he got here. Every day this summer he is the guy who has stayed long and wants to work on back shoulder throws or throwing it low and catching it and different things. He is a real hard worker and has become better through that. He is understanding how to run routes, how to beat coverages, beat man-to-man. In playing (the X receiver spot) he has to beat man-to-man and we are counting on him to do that. It is something he is working on and doing a real good job at so our timing is getting better and will improve the more we work together.”
Finally with the rash of injuries the Gators have gone through being a big concern, Tebow can see the silver lining for this season. Starters Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy are missing practice time, but that is no big deal, according to Tebow. He likes the time he is getting to learn the speed and nuances of the other receivers and players he will be throwing to in the offense.