Wynn Just The Latest Urban Renewal Project

As he was announcing the players that graded champion at Monday’s media day, Coach Urban Meyer took a moment to reflect on a couple of plays made by his senior tailback DeShawn Wynn. Wynn was on his way to a third-straight 100-yard game when he hurt his knee in the third quarter, spoiling what was building up to be one of his greatest games ever as a Florida Gator.

“A couple of plays stood out,” said Meyer, “… the one down at the goal line where he launched himself over — I never saw him do that in the past — and the pass out in the left flat where he got an extra five yards by reckless and hard play.”

Reckless, hard play by DeShawn Wynn. You hear those words and you wonder if it’s the same DeShawn Wynn that’s been here the past four years that Meyer was talking about. Oh, he’s had some moments that really stood out in the past but this season things are different. In all five games, DeShawn Wynn has played with heart and passion that he’s never shown before. He runs hard. He blocks. He gets the job done. He’s even a team leader. At Tennessee, he was a game captain, something that Meyer said he would have never expected prior to this season, but a move that was greeted with cheers from the entire team when it was announced just before the game.

“DeShawn Wynn is playing very good football,” said Meyer Monday. “He’s very accountable. He’s going to class. He’s living right. Do I like that? Yeah I like that. I like that in a person. It’s amazing that these young people the more figure out the correlation in that and playing better on Saturdays.”

And Wynn is playing better. Before he got hurt on the first drive of the third quarter, Wynn had 50 yards on 12 carries against Alabama’s tough to run on defense and he had converted that little pass Meyer was talking about into a 15-yard gain that brought the crowd to its feet.

He’s averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season, best of his career. The numbers read 354 yards on 64 carries and three touchdowns, plus he’s caught five passes for 48 yards. He now has 1,722 yards for his Florida career and 22 rushing touchdowns. Overall he has 25 touchdowns so he’s a threat to move into the all-time top ten in both rushing and touchdowns on Florida’s all-time list.

When he first got here from Cincinnati five years ago, you not only expected that he would leave Florida in the top ten in those categories, but you almost expected that he would be at or near the top. But things haven’t worked out quite that way. Injuries have had something to do with it. Saturday’s knee injury that has him questionable for the LSU game this week is just the latest to slow him down. He’s had bad ankles, bad knees and bad shoulders for what seems to be his entire career at Florida. He’s missed games in every season because of an injury.

Injuries are only part of the story, though. As Meyer said, living life right and doing the right things are another part of it. Going to class and busting your butt to get a college degree are other Meyer requirements that cause life-altering decisions to be made.

Look down the roster and you’ll see plenty of players that had to make those life-changing decisions. When he announced the champions for the Alabama game, Meyer called out the names Dallas Baker, Reggie Lewis, Steve Harris, Ray McDonald and Wynn among others. Considering where they are now and where they were when Meyer arrived, you’d have to call each of them an Urban Renewal Project. All of them had issues. All of them have turned their lives around. All of them will graduate with a degree from the University of Florida.

Baker was considered the team clown and a career under-achiever until Meyer arrived. Now he’s an honors student, doing his internship this fall and a graduate in December. When Meyer arrived at Florida he was walking a razor thin line academically and was in danger of being declared ineligible.

He’s also caught 27 passes for 448 yards and five touchdowns through five games, at the top of the stat charts in the SEC and among the national leaders. Dallas Baker will not only leave Florida with a college degree, but he’ll have his name etched in the all-time record books for pass catchers at Florida. His career numbers are 118 catches, 1,764 yards and 16 touchdowns. He will easily make the top ten lists in all those categories and he has an outside shot at becoming Florida’s all-time leader in receptions and reception yardage.

There’s Reggie Lewis. He’s got a 3.0 GPA now and like Baker he will graduate in December. He’s also starting at cornerback and if he doesn’t make a play in the end zone on D.J. Hall to strip the ball and prevent a touchdown Saturday against Alabama, it’s hard to imagine that the Gators come away with a win.

Ray McDonald’s GPA was heading south when Meyer got here. Meyer got him on track so quickly that McDonald’s mom stood up at a Gator Gathering in Belle Glade over a year ago to thank Meyer personally for the influence he had in getting Ray Jr. back among the living academically. McDonald is going to graduate this year with a degree. His play on the interior of the defensive line against Alabama helped to limit the Crimson Tide to 83 rushing yards. He got enough push up the middle that Alabama had to try to hold off Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey with the bare minimum on the outside, resulting in the two ends combining for 3.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.

And then there is Harris. Harris was suspended from the team for the spring and the summer, not to mention the first game of the season. He’s back and he’s making his presence felt at defensive tackle. Big and strong, he occupies offensive linemen so well that they can’t get to the legs of Brandon Siler and Earl Everett. Siler and Everett are always making a ton of tackles. One of the reasons is that Harris does his job so well. He holds his gap and doesn’t let anyone get close to his playmaking linebackers.

Harris has his life back in order. He’s doing his internship now and he graduates in December. He’s an Urban Renewal Project himself and that makes him all the prouder of what he’s seen happen with DeShawn Wynn this fall.

“He was always a contributor but it was a matter of getting over all the issues and putting forth the effort,” said Steven Harris. “I was always a contributor but it’s just a hurdle you have to get over so you can keep on pushing. I’m really proud of him.”

Harris said the difference is Florida’s coaches and the way they treat the players. The entire atmosphere of the Florida football program has changed because of the way the coaches go about their business of building the relationships with the players and then making sure the players do their part.

“They’re really family oriented,” said Harris. “When they came here they treated us like their children.”

Of course, treating players like their children means the coaches will scold, cajole and double check on everything. Some might think that these are almost grown men so they should be given the respect they deserve and allow them to make their own choices without a coach pushing and prodding every step of the way. That sounds good except for one thing. They’re almost grown which means they don’t always make great decisions.

“They get in your face, they get on your back, they walk you to class,” said Harris. “They make sure you’re doing everything right so that you don’t have any choice but to graduate.”

Jarvis Herring’s situation at Florida when Meyer arrived wasn’t all that dissimilar to those of Wynn, Harris, Lewis, McDonald and Baker. He’d been in trouble with the law, a great embarrassment to his family, and he’d slacked off on his grades. He bought into Meyer’s sermon about living life right, turned things around and became a team leader.

Last year when Florida lost to LSU in Baton Rouge Meyer got labeled “Urban Crier” by some columnists in the state because he fell apart emotionally when he faced the news media after the game. Meyer fell apart because he had been in the locker room with Jarvis Herring, who maybe for the first time understood the full extent of what he’d bought into.

Meyer recalled, “Jarvis Herring, who I became very close with — Jarvis Herring has gone through a lot of things in his life and his career at the University of Florida … it’s no secret that when we care about a player and care about what he’s done, to see him, he was a wreck. His life was ruined for a moment. I’m very close to him and we shared a few thoughts for the moment.”

Those thoughts were emotional and tough for Meyer to handle. He hurt for Jarvis Herring because that same Jarvis Herring that was on the heap nine or ten months before was a different young man. He was a young man whose desire to live his life the right way and to give everything he had on the field for the Florida Gators was turned upside down for those moments. When Meyer got into the press room, his own emotions overflowed.

“Players are very important to us around here, especially players like that,” he said. “Our coaching staff is very unique. We get very close to players around here, especially those who live their life the right way.”

The columnists that criticized him for crying just didn’t get it and maybe they never will. To understand, all you have to do is listen to the players that have had their lives changed by Meyer and his staff. The players understand why Meyer cried. They appreciate a coach that cares enough about them that he is ripped apart when they reach low points in their lives.

Steve Harris knows exactly where Urban Meyer is coming from. He understands the tears. He understands the effort to bring out the best in him. He understands why his position coach, Greg Mattison, has never given up on him.

“For me to graduate, for me to be one of the first in my family to ever graduate from a university … that’s big,” he said. “They did a lot for me.”

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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.