There is no precedence for a third year under Urban Meyer’s leadership, so for the first time in his head coaching career, he began his third spring practice at the same school. It’s a different Florida Gator team that won the BCS National Championship just two months ago. More than 20 seniors are gone, including a defense that was decimated by graduation and early flees to the NFL.
But just two days after the team was honored at the White House for their on-the-field achievements last season, it’s time for Meyer and company to turn the page on a new era.
“This is when reality sets in,” Meyer said after today’s workout. “It set in yesterday at the Champions’ banquet. It set in the other day at the White House. That was the last time with the ’06 team and now it’s the ’07 team.”
Meyer has always said that starting jobs are won in the spring, but during the first spring practice, the focus wasn’t on winning or losing playing time for next fall, but rather the attitude was just to get back into the flow of things and get the newcomers used to the Gators’ way.
“We ran around a little bit,” Meyer said. “Some guys looked good. (Andre) Bubba Caldwell did a good job and CI (Cornelius Ingram). I made the comment that it’s real amazing the guys that treat it like a real profession are the guys that improve. They take care of their bodies. They’re never hurt. They always do things the right way, and that’s when you appreciate a guy like CI. He’s really taking a professional approach to the game.”
Of course much of today’s focus was on the Gators’ prize recruit from a year ago – Tim Tebow. When Florida takes the field this fall, a new quarterback will be at the helm for the first time in 47 games. And an extra-added luxury for Meyer this spring is depth at the quarterback position with freshman Cameron Newton and junior college transfer Bryan Waggener who both took most of the snaps under center on day one.
“(Tebow’s) got a little bit of a sore shoulder,” Meyer said. “He wore it out during the fall, and we’re just being real cautious with him. He’s fine and we want to give the other guys some reps, too. Cam Newton and Bryan Waggener are – to use the term – lost in high weeds. But both are doing a good job, and they’ll be great players.”
The transition from Leak to Tebow has been flawless thus far. Meyer said Tebow was always vocal on the field last year, so stepping into the main role on the Gators’ high-powered offense wasn’t an issue today.
“He’s never been shy,” Meyer said. “It was always Chris Leak’s team, but he was right there with him. I didn’t notice much difference other than Chris wasn’t out here.”
As for the offense that at first glimpse is loaded with firepower and returns a veteran offensive line, Meyer said the first few days will be kept simple and similar to last year.
“Right now it’s no different,” Meyer said. “It’s the first day out, and we were just trying to keep the basic fundamentals of it and see what he can do. I have an idea of what he can do. It will be a little bit more spread, I’ve heard those comments and there’s some truth to that. In the SEC you have to have your best players on the field. Last year, Billy Latsko was a big reason of why we did a lot of what we did last year. Billy Latsko is no longer with us. Tate Casey or Aaron Hernandez could fill that role.”
If there is one position that could be under a microscope this spring, it’s the offensive line. After answering the challenge last season, the front five only lost center Steve Rissler.
“I like walking in their meeting room now,” Meyer said, “I like being around them. I like the talent level. I like the body types that we have at tackle and the guards. That’s the one area that I’ll be disappointed in if we don’t have a great spring.”
It was just a week ago that Meyer called the Gators a train wreck. With three weeks worth of practices to get the wheels back on track, chemistry will be keyword for the spring.
“I thought we had some chemistry problems, and we still do,” he said. “Any team does. I think there was a lack of respect. I think Belichick said it best. We had a bunch of guys that woke up on third base thinking they hit a triple. We have a bunch of 18-year olds on our team that don’t have the same investment level. We are not a good team. We are a very poor team right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t be a good team. It just means that the chemistry is not good right now.”
Chemistry was the key ingredient that transformed a team that gave a lackluster performance at South Carolina two seasons ago to the National Championship last season. And many of the players that kept last year’s squad together are not in camp and instead preparing for the next level.
“When (Chris) Hetland made that field goal in the SEC Championship Game – I was walking by it today and watched it on TV – the first guy out on the field was Brandon Siler,” Meyer said. “Brandon Siler had nothing in common with him other than the fact that they wanted to play well. The second guy out there was Reggie Nelson. We just talked about that and how we had great chemistry. I don’t want it to slip back to the way it was two years ago.”
But for the Gators to avoid that slip, the members of the last two recruiting classes will have to step up.
“They have to and we’re certainly banking on it,” Meyer said of his youngsters. “But we are not there yet.”