SEC: Whatever it is, Meyer needs it

HOOVER, ALABAMA — If you look at it from a talent-only perspective, Urban Meyer should be wearing a smile brighter than the guy that just got back from getting his teeth bleached at the dentist. Top to bottom of his 2007 roster, he’s got more talent than he’s ever had, even more than he had last year when he won the national championship.

Talent is not in short supply. That’s not the issue.

Scan that same roster and start counting the upperclassmen. You’ll find 10 juniors and the same number of seniors. 

Now you’re at the heart of the issues that Urban Meyer has to deal with when football practice starts in a little more than a week. Too few juniors and too few seniors means too few leaders.

All the talent in the world is a good thing. Not enough leaders is a bad thing. Finding leaders in a hurry is a necessity.

“If we do it, we’ll be a really good team,” said Meyer Thursday morning at SEC Media Days.

Meyer had a really good team last year. No doubt about it, he had talent. Maybe not as much as he’s got on this year’s roster, but there was no shortage of talented bodies to put on the field.

There was also no shortage of leaders.

In year one of the Meyer era at Florida , leaders were hard to come by and it showed for most of the season. Meyer came to Florida with the promise of a better football life after three previous under-achieving years. Instead of standing on the promises, there were way too many players seated on the premises and that had everything to do with bad road trips to Tuscaloosa , Baton Rouge and Columbia .

“We were 1-3 on the road … not very tough,” said Meyer. “As a matter of fact, a soft team.”

In year two, guys grew up. They got tough. Followers became leaders. Instead of looking for a few good men — which is what he did the year before — Meyer had a mature group of leaders on his hands.

“The difference between year one and year two is significant, not just in athleticism and some other things, but the development of [Brandon] Siler, of Ray McDonald, of Dallas Baker … the guys that grew up,” Meyer said. “I always use … they grew the whiskers. They became instead of those young, smooth-faced guys, they were weathered. They had been through the storm.”

Those guys who had been through the storms of 2005 were his anchors in 2006. Guys like Siler and Dallas Baker were vocal leaders who weren’t afraid to get in the face of a slacker. Ray McDonald didn’t have to say a word. He had ACL surgery on both his knees in the offseason. He came back and played every game and played so well that he got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Draft. Guys that are that dedicated and that tough don’t have to be vocal. All they have to do is show up. Ray more than showed up.

Siler, McDonald and Baker have moved on to the NFL. So have Chris Leak, Jemalle Cornelius, Steven Rissler, Reggie Nelson, Steven Harris and Jarvis Moss.

That’s a lot of talent to lose but the guys who are stepping in are just as talented if not more so. They are also more immature, something that has shown up in as many, if not more, off-the-field problems this offseason as there were in the last two seasons combined.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen some chinks in the armor,” Meyer said. “I’ve seen some things show up that are not correlated to a tough football team.”

The off-the-field problems are correlated to leadership or a lack of it. The offseason ends in a few days. Will the lack of offseason leadership carry over into two-a-days? Or will some of the young guys grow up?

Can Urban Meyer find the leaders he needs to have a great season in less than seven weeks?

“That’s a concern,” said Meyer. “How you find it [leadership], how you develop it, that’s the secret. I don’t know where we are with that. I have concerns, like I said earlier. I like the guys. I just need to see how they’re going to react in tough situations.”

Last year Meyer didn’t have to worry about someone on the defensive line reacting to a head bob by the opposing quarterback by jumping offside in the last five minutes of a game. He didn’t have to worry about one of his offensive tackles killing a fourth quarter drive with a false start because he saw the hand of the guy across from him flexing like he was ready to fire across the line. He didn’t have to go get in the face of someone that dogged it on a play. Before he got a chance to get his two-cents in, Siler or Baker or one of the other guys had bitten a chunk out of someone’s cheek.

There will be plenty of teaching going on when the Gators start two-a-days. With all those young guys there is plenty that needs to be learned. Meyer has recruited kids who are not only extremely talented, but they have fine football IQs. They will sponge up the teaching.

The real test during two-a-days will be finding more guys like Tim Tebow and Tony Joiner. They don’t have a problem letting someone have it if he’s taking a play off and you never worry that they will give anything less than maximum effort. Tebow and Joiner are a good beginning but Meyer needs more than just those two.

He’s got some help on the offensive side where Tebow, Bubba Caldwell and a veteran offensive line can be counted on. Those guys will lead and when the clock is winding down in the fourth quarter, he has a pretty good idea what they will do.

“I’ve seen Tim Tebow in a very difficult situation and react to it,” said Meyer. “I’ve seen Drew Miller, [Phil] Trautwein, [ Carlton ] Medder, Bubba Caldwell. I’m a little more comfortable on that side right now.”

On the defensive side, he’s got Joiner and Derrick Harvey as his only returning starters. He’s got a bunch of second year guys and a bunch of freshmen that are going to have to do a lot of on the job training. Talent is plentiful. Experience is what’s lacking here.

How will they react when the going gets tough? Who will they look to in the huddle at white knuckles time? Who will lead well enough that the followers will be willing to run through a brick wall if that’s what it takes to win?

Joiner is one of those guys that Meyer knows will lead. Sophomore Brandon Spikes could be. He’s got the talent to fill the shoes of Brandon Siler but can he be the leader that Siler was?

“Does he have the ‘it’ factor?” Meyer asked. “Is he a Michael Jordan? If he brings everyone else’s level of play up like Brandon Siler did — like Michael Jordan did — then we have a chance to be very good on defense.”

From a talent standpoint, Meyer knows he has a roster deep in skilled, fast, strong players capable of doing great things on the football field. From a leadership standpoint, Meyer knows he has seven weeks to find a few more guys with the “it” factor. Guys with the “it” factor are leaders that make everybody around them better. If Meyer finds them, these Gators are going to be very, very good.

Good enough to repeat? It’s way too early to be talking repeat national championships but good enough to make it back to Atlanta ? You betcha.

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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.