Ack's Insights: Behind the scenes at practices

The Florida football team is well into it's first week of preparation for the 2004 season. With no contact allowed in the first five days of the acclimation period the coaches are using the time to re-install the offense and defensive schemes and even add a few wrinkles. By today 95% of the entire offense will be given to the players and a big part of the defense as well.

Practices seem to be moving at a much crisper and efficient rate than the past couple of years under Ron Zook. You can see that these systems have been in place and that even the new players have a better feel for what to do than the last two recruiting classes.

This year's freshman class looks better prepared than either of the previous two to contribute and play right away. While most of the starting jobs are out of reach, key backup spots will fall to several freshmen. The key to the entire week is to set the tempo on how you practice, what you want to learn at practice, then to go out and execute to the best or your ability at practice. The depth charts don't mean a whole lot right now but it should say something about the talent level at Florida when you can look at third team guys and say they can get on the field and help them.

Snippets and Tidbits…

Offensively UF is really working on the play action. This was something that Chris Leak did very well in a limited time last season and appears to be a bigger part of the game plan this season. UF used the play action for deep balls exclusively in 2003 but with Leak's comfort level increasing he is able to hit the intermediate routes and the check downs out of the play call. The key to this is protection and the quarterback must trust his offensive line and stay in the pocket to execute the reads. It will be interesting to see when the pads go on if Chris can maintain his accuracy with the "dig" route off play action. This is one of the toughest routes to throw because you take your eyes off the middle of the field exclusively.

The option is back in the Gator attack again and looks to compliment to shotgun scheme once again. I also think UF may use some with the quarterbacks under center based on certain teams. Most people read the word "option" and think Oklahoma, Nebraska and 1980's football. UF uses formations and match-ups to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands and into a back's hands on the perimeter. Gavin Dickey looks very comfortable with this part of the offense and it will definitely be in his "playbook" should he have to see the field in critical game action.

Speaking of Dickey, he has had a good first week. I think it was tough for him to come in and practice in the spring while playing baseball. He was thrown right into drills with pads and pressure and he struggled a bit. He has been very good at being patient in passing drill and looks much better. Dickey needs to improve his mid range accuracy and also when he decides to throw the long ball, to get rid of it a bit sooner. Justin Midget throws a better ball and can get it there quicker. He is right where you would like a redshirt freshman to be as far as ability. He must stay patient and wait his turn because if he can handle the mental side of the game he has enough talent to be real good.

Dallas Baker will probably lead the team in yards per catch this season. Bubba Caldwell will probably lead the team in touchdowns this season. OJ Small will probably lead the team in third down conversion catches this season. But right now my money is on Jamelle Cornelius to lead when it comes to grading the receivers out every week. He does every thing right. Early in camp he has shown the ability to run deep routes, corner routes, and middle routes. In the spring he showed a nose for the endzone with the screen play and has emerged as a reliable threat at receiver. To tell you how good Cornelius is performing right now, Chad Jackson is head and shoulders better than he was last year and is off to good start in camp. He still trails Cornelius on the depth chart. Caldwell, Baker and Small will get a lot of headlines but keep an eye on Cornelius, he is tough, smart and very reliable. The receiving corps in general seems to be so loaded right now with the first week of practice that Larry Fedora may have to divide the football into twelve pieces. Reggie Lewis who was on the first team last season until the final week of fall camp has continued to build on a strong spring and newcomer Mike McIntosh is got a good chance to play as a freshman if they can find him some snaps.

The running back position looks to be in good hand for a long time to come with the addition of Marcus Manson. He has a cool nickname but I will leave it to his teammates to tell you what they call him. Manson is the kinda kid if you did not know anything about football and I sent you to look at him on the hoof as a recruit you would say sign him today. It will be interesting to see what he does with the pads on. One wrinkle in the offense that I could see UF using a lot of this season is the shovel pass. Ciatrick Fason and Deshaun Wynn are very talented playmakers who need the ball in their hands. With UF running a lot of shotgun this is a natural play to integrate into the offense to keep defenses honest. Both Wynn and Fason are working very hard during camp and Skyler Thornton is doing well.

The biggest concern right now is left tackle. Jon Colon left practice Wednesday with a bit of a limp and Tavares Washington is not quite 100% just yet. Washington is probably the odds on favorite because of Colon's history of health issues but in case of an emergency and UF loses both expect to see some of Randy Hand at Left Tackle. Hand has worked some at that spot and the fact that him and Butler spent last season on the right side they will communicate very well. It is a contingency plan only and the future could be someone like Jason Watkins. Although they have yet to put the pads on he has displayed nice athleticism and appears to be equipped to pass protect. His biggest weakness is his upper body strength. He did not report with the strongest bench press in the freshman class and six weeks has not been enough time to get it where it needs to be. The other interesting battle has started with Steve Rissler at right guard and Mo Mitchell backing him up. Mo is just too heavy at 370 and coaches are looking to shave some of that off in camp. Rissler is going to be a star but Mitchell is a fierce competitor and could win the job when the pads come on.

The defensive line looks to be very deep as we have talked about all summer. I think the X-Factor could be Michael Hill. Hill is a kid out of high school that coaches thought would play much like Marcus Thomas did a year ago. He had some health concerns and missed last season but seems to be 100% and ready to go. If he is as good as the coaches think he could be that would give UF a third bona fide star on the inside. Eric Holcombe really needs a good week in pads next week to stay in the mix for heavy reps in game situations. With Kenny Parker's back always a concern and everyone else lacking experience, UF could use Holcombe's game knowledge from a season ago on the front.

The defensive ends have not disappointed in the first week and when the pads go on expect that competition to be extremely fierce. Joe Cohen is real close to becoming a legit all star candidate in the SEC. He has quickly picked up the scheme and with his strength and speed, Cohen should be a three down defensive end if called upon.

If you did not know which player was who you would have a hard time telling Brandon Siler was a freshman. He is a good looking specimen who can serve as a backup right away. The biggest thing he and Estopinan will have to adjust to is reading the offense with the pads on. Todd McCollough returns and is at full strength. McCollough is a former starter and could be the mike linebacker game one vs Middle Tennessee. Alvin Butler is a guy that will help the team on special teams and he is freshman out of Sumter South Carolina. Crowder is chomping at the bit to get the pads on and is without question the team leader. He is also the fan favorite of the local kids who fight each other after practice to get his trademark sweatbands every day.

The secondary is the biggest concern for many people who follow the Gator program. Ron Zook quickly pointed out that last year at this time Keiwan was still a big part of the offense, the other corner spot was a battle and Daryl Dixon was coming off an injury and a season in which he did not play. This year Jarvis Herring has a chance to be the best safety Ron Zook has had the last three years. Herring is suspended for the first game and once his minor details are taken care of I expect him to be in the starting lineup. Terrence Holmes and veteran Cory Bailey are the starters right now. Bailey knows all the calls and is always in the right place. The corner position has not change and will not change during camp barring injury. The one thing that could change is who plays in nickel and dime in the first game. Vernell Brown is the front runner but keep an eye on Nick Brooks and Jermaine McCollum. Tony Joiner and Kyle Jackson are athletic enough play as well and if they are in the game then Holmes would move up in nickel. That was the positon "Hot Tamale" occupied in the spring with Herring and Bailey. Dawayne Grace has been solid but the next week and a half will determine what impact he will have for this season.

This week UF move it's practices up from 2:30-6:30 to 9:30 or 10:00am to 2:00pm. Each Day the first group on the practice field would have to come off the field and go into the weight room. The staff would give the players about thirty minutes to rest and reload then put them through a short lifting program that focused on the shoulders, upper body and hips. These are the high impact areas that are affected when contact begins so Rob Glass and his staff are preparing the guys for contact before contact. By training the muscles this week they hopefully can lessen the impact on the body of the first hit come Saturday. Glass and his staff have constantly reminded the team about the cold tank for guys to refresh their legs before the soreness begins to settle in. Most guys start getting "camp legs" by the third or fourth full practices. The one down side to the amended practice schedule this week is that the group of players going out later have had a long time between meals. Breakfast is at 7am and with meeting and so forth the second group does not go to lunch until 2pm. Guys have used bananas and plenty of fluid to keep their appetites down until the early afternoon feeding time.

Guys to keep an eye on when the pads go on:

All Freshmen:

Brian Crum at Tight End. He looks athletic and might be able to block a bit. Can he make a move up the depth chart?

Billy Griffin at left guard. If he can have a solid camp it gives UF some more options on the offensive line.

Deshawn Carter at corner. This is the time for him to reach his potential. Will the light go on for Carter?

Michael Hill at defensive tackle. If he is as good as advertised the defensive front could be the best in the SEC.

Eric Holcombe at defensive tackle. Can he get motivated enough to make a difference for the front?

Jon Colon at left tackle. He is in the best shape of his life but will his body let him cash the checks his heart is trying to write?

Channing Crowder at middle linebacker. Anytime 55 has the pads on it is fun. He is worth the price of admission.

Stat of the Week: 20. The number of offensive lineman listed on the roster that arrived at camp. This does not count long snappers that could possibly help out if needed.

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