Ronnie Wilson knew all about the tunnel. He knew all about The Swamp. He knew all about the video on the jumbotron and how the fans go ballistic waiting for that moment when the Florida Gators go running out on the field just a couple of minutes before a game begins. He forgot everything he knew three weeks ago when the Gators made their entrance before the LSU game.
“My mind went kind of blank for a minute,” said Wilson, a redshirt freshman guard from Pompano Beach.
Wilson knew all about how the Gators are greeted on game day at The Swamp. He had run through that tunnel before but never had he run out on the field knowing he was going to actually play.
“It’s different when you know you’re going to play,” he said. “It was always exciting, but when you know you’re going to play, it’s a whole lot different.”
There were times that he wondered if he would ever see that moment. He missed his senior season of high school football with an injury and then he took a redshirt as a true freshman. He was on his way to starting game one when he broke his ankle back in August.
“I worked hard to get ready to start and then I broke it,” he said. “That was really hard to take because I had done everything I needed to do and I had missed football for so long and now I was going to start.”
He could have asked “Why me?” He could have thought “Here we go again.” Instead of the negative approach, he chose the positive route. He attacked rehabilitation, determined that he was going to get back on the field as quickly as possible. In a little over a month he was ready to play, pushing the starters at guard, Jim Tartt and Drew Miller.
By the time the LSU game arrived, he was primed and ready to see his first action as a Gator. The week prior to the game seemed endless.
“You want so long for something and it seems like that moment never gets here,” he said.
Standing in the tunnel that day, waiting for the signal to run out on the field, the screen in his mind went blank. Then all of a sudden everybody started sprinting out on the field and without even thinking, his legs and feet started moving fast. Very fast.
“I bet I ran those 50 yards faster than I have ever run my 40-time,” he said with a laugh. “It just felt so good to bet out there, ready to play football again. I love football and I really missed playing.”
It wasn’t until he was actually in the game that he realized all that he had missed for practically three years.
“I love football,” he said. “I just love to play. When something you love that much is taken away from you, you really appreciate it when you finally get a chance again.”
He responded with seven knock-down blocks in his first collegiate football action to grade champion against LSU, no less, the nation’s top ranked defense. He didn’t start the Auburn game a couple of weeks ago but he saw plenty of action. He struggled against some of Auburn’s very quick defensive linemen but his problems in that game did nothing to reduce the optimism of Coach Urban Meyer about Wilson’s potential.
“Ronnie hasn’t played football in three years,” said Meyer last week when the Gators were off. “He’s going to be one of the best linemen ever to play here. He’s got that much talent.”
Wilson isn’t starting now but he is getting a significant number of the reps at both guard positions. He’s not worried about which guard position he plays or however may snaps he’ll play. All he wants to do is help the team.
“Helping the team whatever way I can is what’s more important to me,” he said. “I just want to do my part the best I can. If all of us on the team give it our best shot every day in practice and every game, we’ll be all right. All I want to do is help my team win the next game.”
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It’s an entirely different situation for the Gators going into the Georgia game than last year. Just like last year, the Gators go into the game after a bye week but unlike last year, this is a relatively healthy Florida team.
When the Gators faced Georgia last year, Dallas Baker was the only healthy wide receiver coming into the game and he got hurt early on.
“Last year we went into this game and we had a problem,” said Meyer. “Who do we get the ball to? We were banged up at tailback. When Dallas Baker went down in the first quarter he had five catches and then Dallas Baker’s out. Chad Jackson was banged up and Jemalle (Cornelius) was half speed [high ankle sprain] and Bubba was out [broken leg]. We had a little bit of a different issue a year ago. We have a different issue this year where we want to make sure the playmakers are touching it.”
Last year, the Gators used the bye week to incorporate Billy Latsko in the lineup at fullback and Tate Casey as a full-time tight end. Rather than spread the field like Meyer wants to do, the Gators were forced to play a conservative, conventional offense.
“A year ago this time we had one fullback, one tight end and one wide receiver,” said Meyer. The Gators’ conservative game plan worked as Florida pulled out a 14-10 win.
But, as Meyer pointed out Monday, having healthy people makes a difference. With healthy playmakers, the offensive scheme takes a back seat to the players in the scheme. It’s still a game usually won when one team’s players are better than the other team’s players.
“Playmakers win games,” he said. “Get the ball in the hands of the playmakers.”
There won’t be any wholesale changes this year with a new scheme nor is there a need to shuffle around personnel since everybody is reasonably healthy.
“The scheme is all set, it’s just who is going to physically touch that ball,” said Meyer. “In the SEC that’s probably more critical than any other conference because you only get so many shots at it.”
With Bubba Caldwell starting to show that he’s fully back from the broken leg he suffered last year and Percy Harvin healthy once again, the Gators have the kind of playmakers that can make other teams miss to go with wide receivers like Cornelius and Baker that can stretch opponents vertically.
Caldwell is coming off a game where he had three rushes for 47 yards and two receptions for 25. Harvin ran five times from the tailback position, gaining 66 yards including a 35-yarder that helped set up a touchdown.
Caldwell’s performance was quite encouraging for Meyer, who has patiently waited while his big play wideout worked his way back into real game shape after missing the last nine games of the season in 2005 with a broken leg.
“He’s a much more aggressive player than he’s ever been here,” said Meyer. “About two weeks ago is when he really started. He played very well against Auburn but he wasn’t like that early in the year and it was because he had a real tough injury but Andre’s a tough guy and he’s playing his best football he’s ever played here.”
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Florida comes into the game ranked third in the SEC in total offense at 394.1 yards per game. Georgia ranks ninth at 318.5 yards per game. Florida ranks fourth in scoring (27.3 per game) and second in scoring defense (12.0 per game). Georgia ranks sixth in scoring (26.2 per game) and sixth in scoring defense (16.0 per game). In total defense, the Gators rank third (267.6) while Georgia ranks second (267.4).
Dallas Baker has caught 35 passes for 556 yards (15.9 per catch) and six touchdowns. For his career, he’s now tied with Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard for tenth on the all-time Gator list with 126 receptions. He needs six catches to tie Richard Trapp for ninth on the all-time list. Baker has 1,872 career yards, needing 217 to move into tenth all-time. He has 17 career touchdown catches, needing two more to tie Carlos Alvarez and Harrison Houston for tenth all time.
Caldwell has 95 catches for his career.
Leak has 80 career touchdown passes, second all-time to Danny Wuerffel’s 114. Leak is also second all-time in passing yardage with 9,774.