As football season creeps closer, I am reminded of one of Dean Martin's famous lines from his 1970 variety show when he would remind the audience every week to "please, keep those cards and letters coming in." You folks keep sending me emails and instant messages with your questions and thoughts, so once again, you've got questions and I have answers for you. From emails and instant messages:
Q: Surely you are nuts! Don't you realize that Miami lost six first round draft picks? Do you realize that Larry Coker is their coach? No way they make it to a BCS bowl this year!
A: No, I'm not nuts and my name isn't Shirley! The University of New Jersey at Coral Gables is LOADED once again, although there is a depth problem at linebacker (where else have I heard that?). There are a lot of new faces breaking into the lineup and yes, the quarterback is still Brock Berlin. All that said, consider this. After winning the 2001 national championship, the Himmicanes lost five first rounders (they lost six this year). They also lost the entire starting secondary and three starters on the offensive line. Does this sound familiar? So what did UNJ-Coral Gables do in 2002? They went undefeated until the national championship game when they lost to Ohio State on a controversial call in the end zone. That they lost two games last year doesn't particularly mean the Himmicanes are on the downslope, either. If Berlin could have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle at point blank range, they would have gone unbeaten last year. If Frank Gore had stayed healthy, I think they would have gone unbeaten in spite of Berlin. Berlin is back and I am convinced that no quarterback could be that bad two years running. Unlike last year, however, if and when Berlin hiccups, there is talented relief in the form of Kyle Wright. There are some experts who thought he was a better prospect out of high school than Chris Leak. While that's questionable, it is a fact that Wright has a cannon of an arm. Coker lost his offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, and I think that's a good move. Chud was so obsessed with getting the ball to Kellen Winslow last year that the Miami offense became very pedestrian and quite predictable. Don Werner is now the offensive coordinator and Coker, who called the plays in 2000 and 2001 when Miami was about as good as it got offensively, will have more input in the offensive game plan which I think is a good thing. They are thin at linebacker, but this will be a breakout year for Leon Williams (we tend to forget he was the most highly regarded high school linebacker in the country three years ago) and he'll have plenty of help from Jon Beason and Willie Williams (yes, they're going to let him in school and he is going to be a bigtime player). As for the secondary, don't grieve. They replaced secondary coach Mike Stoops with Tim Walton. He was LSU's secondary coach last year. LSU had the second highest rated secondary in the nation. The Himmicanes will win the Almost Competitive Conference on September 6 when they trounce St. Bob's Home for Wayward Boys in the Crack Alley Coliseum. They may lose a game along the way, but once they whip the Nolettes in the annual Wide Right Bowl, everything's in place for them to run the table.
Q: Sorry, but I don't buy your theory that FSU has seen its best years. Have you paid attention? They've beaten us (Florida) the last two years. I think they have a chance to go 10-1. I see them beating Miami and I think we beat them to keep them from going unbeaten.
A: Okay, let's see. In the past three years, the Nolettes have lost 12 games. That's almost as many games as they lost in the previous ten years. They lost three times last year and let's face it, if not for the worst officiating in history, they lose three other games. Georgia Tech was a gift thanks to some phantom pass interference calls. They win in overtime against NC State thanks to officiating that is so bad it's almost criminole. The Florida game? Don't get me started. So, last year they should have been 7-5 in the regular season AT BEST, and from that team, they lose eight defensive starters? And from that team we still have Trixie as their quarterback. Yes, he's won the last two years against Florida, but we have to at least put an asterisk by last year's game. He's still Trixie which means he'll still figure out ways to lose games that he shouldn't, plus we can bet the ranch that he'll find ways to choke against the Himmicanes in the annual Wide Right Bowl. The line was overrated last year and it's weaker now that Bobby Meeks could miss the season due to legal problems and backup Eric Broe is taking a medical redshirt. I'm not buying that the defense will be better, either. Pencil in a loss on opening day against the Himmicanes. There are losable games on the schedule with Virgin Mary Land, Climpson, NC State, Virginia Wolf and Florida. I can see 8-3 or 7-4 out of that schedule.
Q: Why do you keep bashing Chris Rix? He's beaten you guys twice in a row now and he's going to harness all that talent this year. He could have a Heisman like season.
A: Yes, you're absolutely right. He could have a Heisman season. Of course, I could also be Batman and win the heart of Catwoman. In fact, I think there is a better chance that I could be Batman. Where are you Halle Berry? I'm twisted steel and sex appeal, the body men fear and women adore! Trixie is Trixie. Have you learned nothing at all the last three years? Do you really think all those reports about how Trixie is probably the least liked and least respected player on the team are just rumors by jealous fans from teams that wish they could be like the Nolettes? Great teams have great leaders. Great leaders traditionally are not the guy who is the least liked. Two things you can absolutely count on: At least one game this season, Trixie will play lights out and everyone will think he's the second coming, and within a game or two, he will do so many dumb things that you'll be wondering if the assasin Carlos can get early parole from the French so he can take a job in Taliban City. Trixie alone is worth two losses on your schedule. The Heisman will be won by someone who is consistently good, not someone who is consistently inconsistent.
Q: The Gators are dangerously thin at linebacker now that Taurean Charles has been suspended. Do you think we're in trouble there?
A: I think the coaches would be happier if they had more bodies, but I think they are looking at an improved overall level of talent even with Charles gone. Channing Crowder, Earl Everett, Travis Harris and Todd McCullough? give us a better top four than what we put on the field last year. From day one, freshmen Brandon Siler and Javier Estopinan will have to produce. I believe that Richard Brown will be a major surprise. He has speed, ability and he has a level of maturity that will be helpful. I would not be surprised to see Eric Rutledge (I am told he will indeed be in school in the fall) moved immediately from fullback to linebacker, which I have said all along is probably his best position. Jamie Newberg even said in a story that I wrote a few weeks back that Eric is probably going to be the surprise of this class. I would not be surprised to see Alvin Butler become a valuable backup. Yes, he's a walkon, but as a 1600 on his SAT would indicate, he's smarter than the average bear, plus he's like his father (Alvin Sr. was a tough defensive back for UF in the 70s) in that he is a hard hitter who enjoys contact. While our depth at linebacker is going to be young, if injuries are avoided, I think this will be a position of strength by year's end. I also like the fact that Bill Miller coaches the linebackers. I think he's a real talent as a coach.
Q: Do you think that the discipline has slacked off the past three years? It seems we have more players in trouble than I can ever remember under Spurrier. I think we're in danger of becoming another FSU or Miami where football players know they can get away with murder.
A: I think this team discipline is an area that Ron Zook will address more strongly in the next few weeks. I'll give Zooker a mulligan for what's happened off the field in the first two years. He inherited a tough situation when he followed Spurrier and he's been in a battle the past two years to win over the hearts and minds not only of Gator fans, but of the players he inherited. It's not a knock on the players that were recruited by Spurrier if all of them weren't able to buy into everything the new coach put on the table. When there's a regime change, whether we're talking football or politics, adapting is not always the easiest thing in the world. Now that the team is more than 60% the players that Zook has recruited, I don't think he'll have the same battles. I think we'll see him more focused and I think he'll mature as both a coach and an administrator. I think he will become less everyone's buddy and more their boss without losing his appeal as a player's coach. I believe that in the next few days Zooker will have a "My Way or the Highway" meeting with the players and you will see a some changes not only in discipline but in fewer players putting themselves in difficult situations. I don't think UF will ever become as slack in its discipline as St. Bob's or the University of New Jersey at Coral Gables.
Q: Have you ever seen such a recruiting coup as we pulled off last week? Do you think we'll get more commitments in the next few weeks? I have a hard time believing this is July and we're in such good shape with our recruiting. Do you think we'll pull in a number one class?
A: Last week's four commitments (Avery Atkins, Demetrius Morley, Vladimir Richard and Gerald Williams) make for an impressive July. It is a good beginning and those four along with Kalvin Baker give the Gators a nice core of defensive players for the class of 2005. It's possible for another commitment or two, but unlikely. I think the coaching staff has its sights set on the bulk of the kids who will make up the class of 2005, but at the same time, I believe that you can get too many commitments too early. I say that because a lot of things happen between a junior and senior year. If you don't believe that, check the Top 100 preseason lists in any of your preseason football magazines from the past three or four years. Then look at those same magazines and their lists of the top 100 freshmen. Sometimes there is a discrepancy of 30-40%. What happens is a lot of kids who were 6-0, 200 as 16-year-olds and on no one's radar screen, have grown and matured. Suddenly, they're 6-3, 245 pounds and dominating games whereas last year they didn't even make a mark. Some of those kids who were studs as juniors actually reached their peak and their senior year performance will reflect that. That's the beauty of the science of recruiting. Coaches have to be able to evaluate which kids have the greater upsides and which kids are already starting their downward slope. So, while I think it's important to get some early commitments, I think it is also important to reach a point where coaches say that's enough for now, then sit back and re-evaluate talent in game situations during the senior year. Remember back about 2000 (I could be off a year on this) when Penn State had 20-something commitments before the season even began? Penn State honored every one of those commitments. Quite a few of them have proven that they peaked way too early. The Penn State class that everyone hailed in August THE class has shown in the years since that it was nothing special at all. I think Ron Zook is a superb talent evaluator. I think he will land a lot of the top kids in the country, and I also think you'll see him land a few of these kids who seem to burst on the national scene their senior year. Zook, I believe, is one who really understands that recruiting is about finding kids who have the most upside. I believe he will bring in one of the best classes in the country in February. The best? That's all subjective, but I think the past two years are indicative that Zooker has that ability to bring in bigtime talent on a consistent level.