It was just before spring practice in 2008 and James Wilson was on the fast track for Wake Forest. After spending his freshman season rehabbing his knee after microfracture surgery, Wilson was so unhappy with the way things were going that he wrote on his Facebook profile, “I’m outta here.” But a funny thing happened on the way to Winston-Salem. Wilson had a few conversations with Urban Meyer and as determined as Wilson was to transfer, Meyer was equally determined to keep Wilson a Florida Gator. In this battle of strong wills, Meyer won.
“He was gone,” Meyer said after Tuesday’s practice. “He was packed and ready to go.”
Wilson was adamant that he wanted a release for a transfer but Meyer wouldn’t give in.
“Like a lot of these guys you want to run from something that’s hard,” Meyer said. “If I had a list of every kid that wanted to quit or quit for the last 20 years …”
When Wilson couldn’t win the battle with Meyer he unpacked and participated in spring football and by the end of spring practice he was getting some reps with the offense. Once that happened his tune had changed considerably. He took a look at himself in the mirror and decided he was the problem not Meyer or the Florida Gators.
“That was when all that Wake Forest talk was happening,” Wilson said. “I realized it was me and I had to get myself healthy and do everything to get healthy. It’s starting to pay off.”
Wilson spent the 2008 season backing up the offensive line that took the Gators to the national championship but he played in 10 games and even graded champion for his effort against The Citadel.
A stress fracture in his foot during the spring was a setback but not enough to keep Wilson from making progress. The 6-5, 320-pound former US Army All-American from Nease has been battling throughout August for the starting job at left guard. With Maurkice Pouncey held out of practice to give extra time to strengthen his shoulder, Wilson has also filled in at right guard whenever Mike Pouncey has taken over at center. He’s starting to play like the player the Gators thought he would be when they out-recruited Southern Cal for him on national signing day 2007.
“I grabbed him after practice and I said you know you can play this game for awhile if you can just practice,” Meyer said Tuesday. “It’s not his fault — the microfracture injury to his knee … he’s had a multitude of issues that he’s dealt with. Now he’s finally going and he’s a pretty good player.”
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Meyer’s persuasive powers haven’t been limited to James Wilson. Meyer admitted that he’s had that “I’m outta here” conversation with numerous players the past four years. He used the wide receivers as an example.
“I went through this and every receiver we’ve had at Florida at one point quit — think about it … from Dallas Baker to (Riley) Cooper and all those guys right in between,” Meyer said. “At some point every one of them. It’s hard. Expectation levels, especially on skill players … these guys are all superstars in high school and they come here and they’re not a superstar and it takes awhile to become a good player. Their frustration runs out.”
When the frustration runs out, the first thing they think of is finding greener pastures. And Meyer says the “I’m outta here” conversation isn’t one where the player is simply thinking about quitting, either. It’s “to the point where I’m leaving or I’m quitting. You think about CI (Cornelius ingram) … I could go right down the list … Dallas Baker, Bubba Caldwell, Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper, Louis Murphy. They all at some point were [quitting]. Only two of them left. Jared Fayson and Nyan Boateng were the only two that packed up.”
What keeps them from leaving?
“Common sense and family support,” Meyer said. “You start talking about education, the opportunity to win and the track record of our receivers. All our receivers graduate and go on to the pros. The only ones that don’t graduate are Percy Harvin (left for the NFL this spring) and Chad Jackson (left for the NFL after the 2005 season). They’re the only two that didn’t graduate so the track record is pretty good.
HANDLING THE HYPE: Tim Tebow is on the cover of every magazine imaginable in this preseason and he’s had the hype since he first arrived on the Florida campus, but he handles the hype and keeps his ego in tow better than anyone Meyer has seen.
That could have been a problem when he first came to Florida.
“If he had been anything other than if not the hardest working guy on the team then one of the hardest workers on the team then you would have had a lot of problems,” Meyer said. “I’ve been in those situations where so and so is getting a lot of publicity but he doesn’t do much and I’m talking about the weight room and training because we do things real hard around here. There is no issue with that.”
The closest there has been to a problem was Tebow’s freshman year when some of the older players might have felt a little bit threatened.
“His freshman year I did feel there was a little bit of that,” Meyer said.
The problem came from “older guys who have been here for awhile” but Meyer said after Tebow “went through one offseason there was no problem.”
TUESDAY PRACTICE: Meyer liked the attitude he saw Tuesday when he put the Gators through a full contact practice. “We had a good practice today,” he said. “We had about a 30-play simulated scrimmage at the end of practice. It was good … a good day.”
One of the high points of practice was center Maurkice Pouncey’s return to contact work. Pouncey had shoulder surgery during the spring so he’s been held out of contact work to allow further strengthening.
Getting Maurkice back at center meant twin brother Mike Pouncey, who has snapped the ball in his brother’s absence, moved back to his familiar right guard position. Having Maurkice back in the lineup helped Meyer get the kind of tempo he was looking for.
“He went against the defense today … first day,” Meyer said. “You could pick his energy up. When him and Tebow are in the lineup that elevates play a little bit … a lot.”
Meyer said he’s not ready to name a starting five for his offensive line and probably won’t until next Wednesday.
RUNNING BACK: Meyer likes what he’s seeing from his tailbacks every day in practice. Sophomore Jeff Demps is running first team but sophomore Chris Rainey and junior Emmanuel Moody are right there, giving the Gators a lethal 1-2-3 punch at the position.
All three tailbacks are breakaway runners, but what pleases Meyer most is that all three are making the effort to be complete backs, capable of doing everything they’re asked to do. It shows when the coaches grade the practice film daily.
“Demps is the guy who grades out 90 percent every time,” Meyer said. “He just does everything right. Rainey and Moody are coming close but they’re still not there yet.”
WIDE RECEIVER: The Gators have a solid first four wide receivers in Deonte Thompson, Riley Cooper, David Nelson and Brandon James. In the last couple of days of practice, Meyer has seen some of his young receivers elevate their play to the point they’ll probably be in the rotation.
“The last two days have been much better [for the young receivers],” Meyer said. “Frankie Hammond and T.J. Lawrence are the two [young receivers] that are starting to progress a little bit.”
Among the veterans, Cooper has put together two excellent practices this week.
“Riley Cooper has had two excellent days,” Meyer said. “He had another one today and yesterday was probably his best practice day as a Florida Gator which is really neat to see him do that. He deserves that.”
PLACEKICKER: The battle between senior Jon Phillips and sophomore Caleb Sturgis rages for the starting job at placekicker. It’s close enough that the two might split the chores.
“Philips is going to get the nod if he’s close but right now even Caleb is this much ahead of him and he’s earned that which means they’ll both kick,” Meyer said.
SAFETY: With Dorian Munroe out for the next 4-6 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Meyer said that either Dee Finley or Josh Evans is going to have to step up and become that fourth safety.
“Last year we went the whole year with three safeties and we were scared to death,” Meyer said.
Meyer might have been scared, but Ahmad Black (seven interceptions), Major Wright (three interceptions) and Will Hill (one interception) went through the year injury-free and turned in outstanding performances.
LINEBACKER: Meyer commented that Brendan Beal is in the mix for playing time at linebacker. Beal has probably separated himself and become the clear backup at middle linebacker to All-American Brandon Spikes.
“He’s done a nice job,” Meyer said. “He’s really improved. Everybody is worried about who’s going to be the number two. I see him being in the rotation with that linebacker group.”
MAKING THE FRESHMEN FEEL WELCOME: One way that Meyer has of making the freshmen feel welcome is testimony time after tough practices.
“We do something called testimonies at night where guys get up at night and kind of spill their guts a little bit and talk to each other,” Meyer said. “There’s nothing like having an 18-19-20-22-year-old let their guard down after a hard two-a-day. We call them in and we’ll have a couple of old guys speak, then a couple of young guys speak and tell them about their families and you can see sometimes tears. They open their heart to you and then they’re officially part of the family.”
Meyer took some flack about statements he made last week about the locker room setup before he arrived. Pre-Meyer the freshmen had a separate locker room but now everybody shares the same locker room and Meyer can see the difference in team unity.
“I think the locker room has really helped,” he said. “It has really helped to have a freshman sit by Spikes or right there as opposed to go back into another room. That was nobody’s fault but that’s the way it was.”