DAY 3: New NCAA Rule Works In Gators’ Favor

When he first heard about the new NCAA rule that allows a player that has graduated with football eligibility remaining to transfer without having to sit out, Urban Meyer was vocal in his opposition. Now that Ryan Smith has taken advantage of the rule and transferred in from Utah, Meyer still doesn’t like it but he’s happy it works in his favor this year.

Smith, who was a starter at Utah for Coach Urban Meyer’s 12-0 Fiesta Bowl championship team in 2004, got in his first practice at the University of Florida Tuesday evening and his presence adds a cornerback with starting experience at a position that is thin in both numbers and experience. The 5-10, 165-pound Smith graduated from Utah a few days ago with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He’s now enrolled in graduate school at Florida where he will pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership. He has two years of playing eligibility remaining.

Smith was planning to leave the Utah football team after a sophomore season where things just didn’t work out well. Meyer, the coach that recruited him to Utah, was at Florida where he took secondary coach Chuck Heater with him. The new defensive coordinator/secondary coach at Utah wanted bigger, more physical corners and that more or less squeezed Smith out. He decided to get his bachelor’s degree and then transfer to another school to play out the final two years of eligibility.

“I’m just glad to be here,” said Smith after Tuesday’s practice. “I don’t want to do too much talking about the past. Things happened and the cards fell that way. I graduated early. I took a lot of classes in summer school and I was done with my credits and I was ready to play football somewhere else.”

Before the NCAA ruling back in late April, Smith couldn’t have transferred into Florida. The Southeastern Conference had a rule that wouldn’t allow a transfer that didn’t have at least two years to play after the transfer. Smith had redshirted one year at Utah and played two so by the old SEC standard, he would have been ineligible at Florida because he would have had only one year.

Heater knew of Smith’s situation and was trying to help him locate to a Division I-AA school or a Division I school with different transfer rules than the SEC.

“I wanted to help him and I was actually getting ready to call some people I knew in the country that I thought I believed he could play at any level anywhere,” said Heater, who coaches Florida’s cornerbacks. “I getting ready to call them on a Monday when I just happened by [compliance director] Jamie McCloskey’s office and just kind of mentioned that I had talked to one other compliance person and that’s where I understood the SEC rule and he said there’s a new rule. I said really? He told me about the April 26 new legislation and then Ryan’s dad got on it. Next thing I knew three hours later he was calling back. He had called the NCAA and the SEC and realized that was a reality.”

Smith wanted to transfer to Florida to play for Meyer and Heater, saying they were “humongous in my decision and that’s the main reason. I love the coaching staff. I love Coach Meyer and I love Coach Heater, both of them. I think they know how to coach the game and they care about you as a player. They’re just good guys and I love playing under them.”

Meyer definitely was interested in having Smith on his team. He remembered Smith as a hard worker and a good student from a solid family. Ryan’s father is a career officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Coach Heater and him are real close so when Chuck came to me and said it I looked at him and said no, we can’t do that,” said Meyer. “First off, I don’t want to start taking players from another school and then we had the issue show up where the guy’s getting ready to quit. I remember him having a great family, a great person, a 3.0 student and then I found out about that new rule that I was complaining about. The AD [Jeremy Foley] came in and said you might want to quit complaining so loud if you can get a guy. It’s really worked out well. The fact is he’s graduated and he’s going to graduate school at the University of Florida which is a pretty good deal.”

Before Meyer would approve of moving things along with the Smith transfer, he called Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, his former defensive coordinator at Utah. Meyer wanted to square things with Whittingham and make sure that the Utah coach knew he wasn’t meddling in Utah affairs and trying to steal a player off the Utes’ roster.

“He was leaving Utah and that’s the one thing I wanted to make sure of so I got with (Utah Coach) Kyle Whittingham,” said Meyer. “I called him and I asked what do you think? He said you do what you’ve got to do. We have our opinions. He was going to play somewhere though. He was going to 1-AA or try to get eligible right away and he has two years of eligibility left which is kind of a good thing.”

For Heater, who lost starters Vernell Brown (graduation) and Dee Webb (early entry into the draft) to the NFL and projected starter Avery Atkins (dismissed from the team), the arrival of Smith couldn’t come at a better time.

“It’s a bonus to have a guy who has college experience who’s played a bunch of games in college football,” said Heater. “It’s a free agent signing. It’s a helluva deal!”

Smith worked out without pads Tuesday and he’ll be padless again on Wednesday before he can go full speed in all the team drills. He did some coverage drills Tuesday and said the players he’s facing are bigger and faster, but he’s ready to make the adjustment.

“They’re faster and they’re bigger,” he said. “I think I can play though … nothing I can’t handle.”

He knows that he won’t be handed a starting job, that he’ll have to earn his playing time but he’s ready for that challenge, too. “I expect to come in and get a starting job … that’s what I want to do but there are guys who have been here and have been playing here so I can’t expect to walk in and take a job,” he said. “I have to earn it. I just want to play next to these guys. I just want to be here.”

Smith is also a proven special teams commodity with Meyer so Smith could be wearing a lot of hats for the Gators and very soon.

“He gives us another gunner, another gunner control guy, another guy that can get a hand on the punt and obviously the corner play,” said Meyer.

Meyer added that if Smith can handle things at corner, that gives him the option of moving Reggie Nelson back to free safety. Meyer said Nelson will be on the field somewhere when the Gators open the season against Southern Mississippi, he’s just not sure where.

“Reggie’s the ace,” said Meyer. “Gosh darn it he’s a good player.”

So with Smith coming in, possibly taking one starting position at corner and giving Meyer some options for using the multi-talented Reggie Nelson, is the Florida coach happy with the new NCAA rule that obviously helps him in so many ways?

“I like it this year,” said Meyer. “I won’t like it next year.”

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.