Urban’s Obstacles/Part I

(In this next series of columns, Buddy Martin will address the issues that face Urban Meyer and his staff in 2007 as the Florida Gators try to repeat as Southeastern Conference champion.)

While interviewing some of America’s brightest journalism prospects recently at the Poynter Media Institute in St. Petersburg, I happened upon lad from the University of Illinois who had a penchant for sports writing.

“How do you like Ron Zook?” I asked him.

“Oh, he’s fine — he’s a good recruiter,” said the lad from UI. “I’m hoping he will get fired after next year and then we can win the national championship.”

Touché! Point taken. Urban Meyer has yet to prove that he can win titles with all his own players, although it seems a fait accompli.

Giving credit where it is due, Zook deserves to be recognized for his contributions to the 2006 national champion Florida Gators. However, there is this misconception that Urban Meyer is an opportunist that wins with other people’s talent.

It is true that 20 of the starters from Florida’s national championship team were signed by Zook, including Chris Leak, DeShawn Wynn, Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Andre Caldwell, Tate Casey, Drew Miller, Jim Tartt, Jarvis Moss, Derrick Harvey, Ray McDonald, Brandon Siler, Earl Everett and Tony Joiner.

However, without the presence of these Meyer signees, there would have been no championship: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Reggie Nelson, Ryan Smith, Jarred Fayson, Wondy Pierre-Louis and Brandon James.

So in 2007, it will be mostly Meyer’s recruits defending “The Swamp” and all that glitters. Just 15 Zookmen will be on the 85-man roster.

This is folly, of course, because football players are football players. No matter who signed them, it took the discipline, focus and attention to coaching detail by Meyer and his staff to produce the ultimate result. Right now, Florida has the hottest football coach in America and a staff second to none. That’s why they all recently got nice raises, following the bump their boss received to $3.25 million.

Having said that, there will be those who will point to the fact Meyer has won three consecutive championships in three two-year stints without ever coaching a team of all of his own players.

Not that there are any flies on his two recruiting classes, which by all accounts have either been ranked No. 1 or in the Top Five by scouting services since he has been at Florida. Coaches are licking their chops over the 27 new arrivals.

It has always been my practice not to pass judgment on the incoming freshmen until I’ve had a chance to see them perform in pads at the college level. However, based on some of early enrollees I observed in spring ball and tape or live performances I’ve witnessed in high school, I’d be a fool not to admit that this group is loaded with talent.

I know about quarterback Johnny Brantley because I’ve been watching him play since he was 10 years old in Ocala. He will be the purest passer of all the quarterbacks now that Leak is gone. Brantley will probably red-shirt, but if needed, will be called upon. The size, speed and rapid development of 6-5, 243-pound quarterback Cam Newton of Atlanta blew away the coaches in spring practice. Newton’s poise and passing improved dramatically in the second half of the spring game.

Speed doesn’t lie, so wide receiver Deonte Thompson from Belle Glade, tiny running back (5-9, 165) Chris Rainey from Lakeland and the versatile Joe Haden, defensive back from Maryland will certainly enhance the ranks.

The newbies are not without size, either. While they are both still babies, the huge Pouncey twins (6-4, 310) from Lakeland, Mike and Maurkice, have the size, skills and attitude you like to see on the field. When Carlos Dunlap gets schooled in the weight training program of Mickey Marotti, the 6-6, 280-pound defensive end from North Charleston, S.C., could be a force.

We don’t need to discuss the 2006 recruiting class — we’ll just mention Tebow, Harvin, Dustin Doe and Brandon Spikes.

The biggest question about Florida is not talent. Meyer has the players and the coaching staff to win another championship. What he lacks is experience on defense.

Here are the biggest challenges he faces:

1. Finding leadership on the defense to go with Joiner and Harvey. Who will step up? Will it be Spikes or Doe or someone like safety Dorian Munroe, or defensive linemen Javier Estopinian and Jermaine Cunningham? That’s where Siler, Everett and Nelson will be missed.

2. Keeping athletes out of trouble for the remaining weeks of this summer and hoping that those who found trouble have also learned their lessons.

3. Maintaining execution excellence against tough opponents. Competing at a high level against tough teams like Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, etc, in the SEC, as well as Florida State.

4. Winning close games and taking advantage of bounces that come the Gators’ way. If it weren’t for fourth quarter drives engineered by Chris Leak, the conversion of a few key field goals and extra points, extraordinary special teams plays — plus a few fortuitous bounces of the ball — a national championship season might have wound up as 9-3. Taking nothing away, of course, from the spectacular coaching and playing in Florida’s last three games.

As Steve Spurrier recently told me, Florida was fortunate to win so many close games last year and, without belittling the Gators’ effort and result, pointed out that you can’t count on things always going your way.

As far as players getting into trouble, I have it on good authority that so far those who have run afoul with the law have mostly been dealt with and that as of this writing, the only real loss for 2007 will be that of Ronnie Wilson, who may yet get a chance to redeem himself after this season.

Injuries must be factored in, too, and that more than everything else, they might determine the outcome of the Gators’ 2007 season. Meyer has shown the ability to adapt upon loss of key personnel; i.e. Marcus Thomas last season, but there are some players who are nearly indispensable. If, say, Tebow goes down for the year, then forget about Atlanta and maybe a lot more.

Fragile is the nature of all football fates, which only underscores why championships should be cherished and celebrated. Unfortunately, the rings don’t mean a thing once the season kicks off Sept. 1 against Western Kentucky. Gator fans should enjoy the last few remaining days of the national championship afterglow, because in about six weeks they start all over again.