Weak link? All Markihe can do is grin

To the doubters — and they are far too numerous to count with a little more than two weeks before the season opener — Markihe Anderson offers the grin. It’s not a chip on his shoulder grin, the kind you would get last year from Ryan Smith, the previous occupant of the corner position that Anderson will be playing this year.

Smith’s grin was nearly a sneer, an almost you gotta be crazy to even ask that question kind of grin. Anderson hears the same questions that Smith heard, but his grin is polite but subtly confident.

The question was asked last year and the year before that. It goes something like this:  How can the Florida secondary be good with so many inexperienced guys back there?

When Vernell Brown was asked, he would roll his eyes back in his head because he knew the follow-up question would have something to do with his size — 5-8, 163 — and the fact he had never settled in on one position before. Vernell was a an unsuccessful wide receiver before he finally got a chance to prove himself at cornerback. Last year Ryan Smith acted like he was insulted that anyone would question either the secondary — his running mate Reggie Lewis was a converted wide receiver who had never started before — or his ability to cover an SEC caliber wide receiver. Smith was a whopping 5-10, perhaps 165 pounds, and he rode the pine the year before in Utah, although he did start as a freshman when Coach Urban Meyer was the head man for the Utes.

Like Brown and Smith, Anderson isn’t very big — all of 5-9 and 178 pounds — and like his predecessors, he didn’t exactly burn up the recruiting charts out of high school. Anderson was a wide receiver at Fort Myers Dunbar who didn’t attempt to play defense until his senior year. Anderson played some corner at Florida last year as a true freshman when the Gators won the national championship but most of his playing time was on special teams. He did play enough to register eight tackles and break up one pass.

While that doesn’t sound like much, please remember, those stats make him the single most experienced corner on the Florida roster. That’s precisely why every single preseason magazine and prognosticator says the cornerback position is the weakest link for the Gators this year.

Call Markihe Anderson and his teammates at corner weak links and it brings out the grin.

“Yeah, I hear that,” he says, the grin never leaving his face. “I don’t think they [prognosticators] think much of us. We got the talent and the coach is the same coach. Anybody still doubting Coach (Chuck) Heater after what he’s done the last two years?”

Chuck Heater is still the coach of the Florida corners. He’s the same Chuck Heater that turned Vernell Brown into an All-SEC corner. He’s the same guy that took in Ryan Smith when Utah didn’t want him anymore and made him into a second team All-America that nearly led the nation in interceptions. He’s the same Chuck Heater that turned Reggie Lewis from a seldom-used wide receiver into a starting corner that is now battling for a spot on the Buffalo Bills.

Last year, Florida’s secondary had to replace both Vernell Brown and Dee Webb. When the late Avery Atkins left the team after the spring, the Florida secondary was considered too big a question mark. The combination of the toughest schedule in the nation and an allegedly weak secondary had the prognosticators saying Florida was good, just not good enough to win it all.

The Gators finished the season with a pass defense efficiency rating of 98.3, fourth best in the country, and they gave up just 10 touchdown passes while picking off 21. Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith didn’t even pass for 50 yards against the Gator secondary. Instead of a weak link, the Florida secondary was a point of strength.

It’s the same old story this year, the same story of 2005 and the same story of last year. The Gators are replacing two starting corners again and again, the secondary is consdered the weakest link. All Markihe Anderson can do is grin and shake his head as if he’s amazed.

“We’re going to be as good as we were last year,” he said matter of factly. “We’ll prove everybody wrong again like we have the last two years. We’re focused and we work really hard and every day we’re getting better. Just watch. We’re going to prove everybody wrong again.”

Proving the doubters wrong is old hat for Markihe Anderson. Even though he was a fine wide receiver in high school, he didn’t switch over to defense until his senior year, experts called him a “reach” when he signed with the Gators. He’s been busy ever since trying to prove that he belongs.  He says he can’t do anything about folks that will doubt. All he can do is go about his business the same way every day and hope they will see the light.

“You’ll always have doubters,” he said. “All you can do is get out every day and work as hard as you can. If you work hard as you can, do what the coaches tell you to do and never doubt yourself, a lot of good things can happen to you.”

Every day in practice, he says he learns something new from Heater. Anderson says that if you’re aware of the indicators that a receiver gives you when he lines up, you can have a pretty good idea what to do.

“It’s about getting your technique down on what you have to do,” said Anderson. “Coach Heater’s really good about teaching it and then you start seeing indicators on what they [wide receivers] are going to do or what move they’re going to make.

“If you listen to Coach Heater and watch what the receivers do, they’ll usually give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. That helps you get a little jump on them and that helps a lot.”

He tries to be a leader in the secondary, both vocally and by example. As a group, Florida’s corners may lack experience but they don’t lack for a desire to get better. Anderson says they come to work every day hungry, ready to get better and ready to prove the preseason prognosticators wrong.

“We come out here every day and work hard as we can to prove everybody wrong,” he said. “For years and years, even before I got here, everybody has been saying the secondary, especially the corners, are gonna be weak. That’s why we focus in every day and work harder than everybody else so we can get better and prove everybody wrong.

“Proving people wrong is good motivation. We hear what people say. It makes us work that much harder and it will make us that much happier when we prove them wrong.”

The most difficult aspect of practice is trying to pick off a Tim Tebow pass. After spending the last two years trying to intercept Tebow passes in practice, Anderson knows he made the right move to switch to cornerback.

“When he throws it, it comes at you as hard and as fast as a baseball,” said Anderson. “You’ll jam up your fingers easy if you don’t have them open and extended the right way. You try to catch it with your body and that can hurt, too. The wide receivers always complain about their sore hands. I know why.”

With the countdown to game one against Western Kentucky winding down rapidly, Anderson knows there is a lot of work still to be done but he’s confident that the Florida corners won’t let the team down.

“We got a lot of talent and we got a lot of pride,” he said. “Nobody’s going to outwork us and we still got Coach Heater coaching us. I say we’ll be all right. I say we’ll prove everybody who doubts us wrong.”

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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.