SPRING: It's A Learning Process For Tate Casey

Every day it is a new learning experience for Tate Casey. Some days he thinks he was on top of the world. Other days he's trying to figure it all out.

A year ago, he was playing high school baseball in Longview, Texas, counting down the days until he would head east to the University of Florida to play tight end on the football team. Tall and skinny, everyone expected he would redshirt that first year in Gainesville, but instead of sitting out his freshman year Casey became a go-to target for Chris Leak in the red zone. While the 219 pounds that were spread so thick over his 6-6 frame weren't near enough, he compensated for the lack of weight with a toughness and quickness.

Now about 20 pounds heavier, he's in his first spring practice, playing for a new coach and learning his second offense in only a few months. There are days when he thinks he's handling things quite well, but he feels the frustration level when he has one of those days when everything doesn't click.

"When you learn a new offense and you're a young guy like me who just got finished learning a new offense less than a year ago, then you come back in the spring like this and it's totally new, well that can be pretty difficult," said Casey after Wednesday's practice. "Some of the concepts are the same and some of the names are the same, too, and that part is pretty easy but there's other stuff that is totally new. Sometimes it's pretty tough to figure out but we're all going through a learning process. We have good days and bad days. We're trying to get the bad days behind us."

Casey has shown he has the good speed and hands to be an effective receiver. Last year, he showed that he had the toughness to play the tight end position even though he was undersized and often blocking against defensive players who outweighed him by 30 pounds or more. He added about 17-20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, not where he wants to be necessarily, but certainly allowing him to handle the rigors of the position in this new offense.

In the offense coordinated last year by Larry Fedora, the tight end had a fairly traditional role, but in the spread option that Coach Urban Meyer has brought to UF, the tight end is almost a hybrid position that has multiple functions.

Tate Casey takes on Reggie Lewis at practice.

"It's a jack of all trades," he said. "That's the way Coach (Steve) Adazzio describes it. It's a tough role because first off there is a lot of information coming at you. I don't think there's another role like the tight end position where you really have to know five positions since you're part O-line, part tight end, part wide receiver, part fullback and part running back.

"All those positions, well there's some of each one in the tight end position in this offense. There's a lot of stuff coming at us now so we're learning every day. Once we learn what we're supposed to do so it's second nature, we'll be all right." Casey is also dealing with higher expectations, something he has found to be far more of a blessing than a burden. Like all the other players, he really didn't know what to expect from Coach Meyer when he got to Gainesville but he has learned quickly that being average or even slightly above average just isn't tolerated.

"It's fun to go out there and line up but they expect greatness out of you so you can't just go out there and half-do everything," he said. "That's just not acceptable. I like it, though. They have raised the expectations of the whole team. They have us expecting to be better and wanting to get better."

Casey came to Florida as one of the nation's top tight end recruits out of Longview. He bought into what Coach Ron Zook was selling and believed strongly that Zook would be a great coach at Florida. Although Zook is gone now, Casey sees how the new coach is raising the expectations both on and off the field for the Gators and he thinks that is a good thing.

"Everything now is a high intensity level on the field and even off the field, what's expected of you is greater than what it used to be," he said. "What Coach Meyer is doing is bringing the expectations here back to where they were before. He wants to win championships like Florida used to do. He thinks we should be champions on the field and off the field."

Grilling in what it takes to be a champion first hit home for Casey during the offseason weight training and mat drills. There was an edge to everything that was done, and with each new day, the intensity bar was raised. The players learned quickly that they have to be accountable to themselves, to each other and to the coaches. They also learned that to do those things, you have to have a certain toughness about you.

"They want toughness and intensity," he said of the coaches. "As far as mental toughness goes, I think the preparation we did in the weight room in the offseason is paying off a little bit right now but as the spring goes on, as we work in the offseason and we get to August, you'll see it even more of it. Championship teams are tough teams. We're going to be tough."

For now, though, he has his good days and his days when he struggles to learn. It's not for a lack of effort, though. He's putting the effort in, determined that he's going to be a difference maker in the fall.

"Four or five practices isn't nearly enough to get this scheme worked out so we have to keep at it until we know it and can run it right," he said. "I'm having fun out there and I know that once it all clicks, this is going to be something! Right now it isn't really the offense they want to see and I know everything's not the way they want it yet, but once we get everything down, it will work. So we'll just keep working hard. We all want this to be great."

AND WEDNESDAY'S WINNER IS …. : The defense. There was scrimmaging time at the end of the practice Wednesday afternoon. Coaches keep score and unlike Saturday, when the offense scored on the last play to eke out a 1-point win, this time the defense came through.

"Wednesdays and Saturdays are winner-loser days and the defense kind of handed it to the offense today which you kind of expect this time of the year," said Meyer. "We had some good efforts. Joe Cohen went hard at it today. Dee Webb struggled early but the sign of a good player is someone who makes a few mistakes and comes back to make a great play and he did that."

Meyer said there were "some positives on defense" but added that he "can't think of a whole lot of positives on offense other than it's good attitude."

He praised quarterback Chris Leak for having an outstanding day throwing the football and he liked the way his offensive linemen kept running downfield on a play when Skyler Thornton broke loose.

"I saw Skyler Thornton take one the whole way and I saw the entire offensive line running behind him," said Meyer. "That was great effort. There are cutbacks and fumbles and some things that happen downfield that if you have great hustle, sometimes you come up with the ball or you make that great block to set a guy free. Effort was not a real problem."

Tony Joiner was back with the team and running with the first team defense. Meyer said that Joiner is in good standing with the team.

"He's fine," Meyer said of the rising sophomore safety. "He had a couple of personal issues which we all have. He's going to be fine."

At linebacker, where depth behind the experienced threesome of Brandon Siler, Earl Everett and Todd McCullough is a problem, Meyer has found one player who will see time on the field in the fall.

"Latsko's going to play," said Meyer of his 5-10, 233-pound rising junior, who spent the last two years playing fullback. "He's doing really well."

Billy Latsko and rising sophomore Eric Rutledge were the fullbacks on last year's team, but that position has been eliminated in the new offense. Latsko and Rutledge have moved over to linebacker where both were standout players in high school. At this point, Rutledge is a bit behind Latsko.

"Latsko's a little bit ahead of him [Rutledge]," said Meyer. "Latsko's going to play linebacker for us. With Rutledge, speed's the only concern, but he's got toughness and character. He's a good kid."

Meyer said he had no problems selling either Latsko or Rutledge on making the switch from fullback to linebacker.

"All they want to do is play," said Meyer. "Latsko, you could tell him your position is going to be hanging off that goal post the whole game and he'll say, "Okay coach, I'll go do it." There are no issues here."

The Gators will practice on the practice field on Friday, then Saturday they will be in The Swamp for their first major scrimmage of the season.

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