Urban’s back in his element once again

Urban Meyer was back in his element Sunday afternoon. Maybe the heat index on the field read 110 and maybe the humidity was chainsaw-cutting thick, but it was football practice starting again. For the first time since the spring game ended back in April, the coach of the Florida Gators felt he was exactly where he belongs.

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“It was awesome,” said Meyer with a smile after watching his highly regarded freshman class go through the paces on this sweltering August afternoon. Before they took the field, they watched a highlight film of last year’s national championship team. When they finally made their way from the football meeting rooms to the practice field, there were several hundred fans braving the heat, waiting for their first glimpse of what Meyer called “a bunch of wide-eyed young players.”

Seeing fans at the practice field and hearing the whistles blowing again as players go from station to station to get coached up is what Meyer lives for. There is no place he would rather be than on a football field coaching a team and getting it ready to play.  The toughest time of the year for him is that nearly four-month period from mid-April until practice begins in August. His contact with the kids is limited during that time and by NCAA rule, he can’t do any coaching so the start of practice in August is like un-caging him.

So it was Meyer un-caged, stalking from one station to the other Sunday and enjoying every moment.

For the freshmen, this was their first real practice with coaches — they’ve been going through unsupervised workouts for the past six weeks — so the goal was just getting through the day. It will be this way for a few more days and then they’ll start feeling like they belong.

“Right now they’re in survival mode,” said Meyer, who noted that he’s got a “a bunch of trainers and doctors” to monitor the players health to make sure nobody gets overheated. About the closest they came to a health problem was when quick as lightning Chris Rainey puked. Rainey grinned when he made his way back to the field to the razzing of his teammates and coaches.

Rainey is one of the speed guys that Meyer can’t wait to coach. He’s obviously heavier than the 156 pounds (his high school weight) he is listed on the roster. He scored 15 touchdowns last year of 50 yards or more and he had 20 plays of at least 40 yards called back due to penalties.

Meyer already knows what he’s getting in Rainey and Deonte Thompson of Belle Glade, who has been timed at 10.3 over 100 meters. What probably impressed the head coach more was the speed of guys like John Jones, Major Wright and Lorenzo Edwards.

“You expect Deonte to be fast,” said Meyer, noting that the young guys like Wright, Jones, Edwards and others have the kind of speed to fill vital roles on special teams even if they can’t crack into the regular playing rotation at their positions. “I asked Vernell Brown [very visible on the Florida sideline] and he said that this seems like a fast group.”

Because of a lack of speed, Meyer said that, “Two years ago on special teams we suffered.” Obviously, that won’t be a problem this year.

The speed of his players was likely the most impressive thing Meyer saw Sunday as his young guys ran from station to station, getting instruction from coaches they don’t know in terminology that could be Swahili for all they know. In another week or two, they will know the terminology and have a good idea what the coaches expect every day.

Yet, even with so much coming at them at faster speed than they’re used to, many first impressions were made that were good ones. Some of these young guys may not know it yet, but they were instant hits with the big guy Sunday afternoon.

“You can tell right now the ones that are going to play,” said Meyer. “I can.”

Asked who those guys are, Meyer just grinned and answered, “I’m not going to tell you but I have a good indication of who’s going to play already. I expect them all to play. We’ve got 10 seniors and 10 juniors. You figure it out.”

It will be at least three weeks before Meyer can tell if James Wilson can play right away. The highly touted offensive lineman from Tim Tebow’s old school, Ponte Vedre Beach Nease, is still recovering from knee surgery. Meyer said it would be three weeks before he can go through the normal paces in practice. 

Perhaps the happiest guy to be there was John Brown, the last of the Lakeland Seven to make it in. He’s a little behind in the conditioning area since he spent the last six weeks back in Lakeland diligently working to pass that last algebra class he needed to gain admission to Florida. It will take another couple of weeks before he’s got certification from the NCAA Clearinghouse, but apparently, there will not be any issues there.

“Obviously he’s here,” said Meyer. “The rule is that to be certified and clear you get two weeks from the start of practice so he has from now 14 more days to be officially clear. He’s not officially clear but looks like it or they wouldn’t let him practice.”

The young guys were hustled off the field at the end of practice. Meyer said they had to go through a meeting and sing the fight song for the veterans, whose practice will begin later in the evening.

“I was very impressed,” said Meyer, who wouldn’t single out any standouts from the first freshman practice. “It’s not fair to single one guy out or two guys out, They fought through with a 110 degree heat index so they did good. I can’t wait to see the old guys a little later tonight, though.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.