SPRING: Gators Respond To Meyer's Mind Game

The real measure of progress for Florida's football team wasn't seen on the football field Saturday morning although Coach Urban Meyer had a few superlatives to hand out for his team when it was over. Before the team ever hit the field, when the team was gathering for its 7:30 a.m. meetings, Meyer knew he had taken a leap in the right direction.

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Football practice had gone poorly enough that Meyer had few good things to say when he addressed the media Friday afternoon. He called his team out for lack of effort, saying that Saturday's scrimmage was the most important day in Florida football history. He was issuing a challenge and their response Saturday morning would tell him everything he needed to know about the team's character and emotional makeup.

"Because we were lousy on Friday we kept going and going and going and I was worried about them coming out early," he said after Saturday's scrimmage. "[At] 7:30 meetings start. After Friday night in Gainesville I wanted to see if we could trust them.

"If they would done things other than getting rest and doing the right things last night this scrimmage would have been pathetic with as hard as we went yesterday. We were putting them through some mind tests and they passed the first one."

Meyer came into the locker room looking around to see if his team was tired and dragging from a night on the town. He wanted to see if they were grousing about Friday's practice. He wanted to see who was and who wasn't enthused about a chance to scrimmage Saturday morning.

Though he's only been in Gainesville a little over two months, he's well aware of the downtown nightlife. The University of Florida's national image as a party school with a downtown nightlife that fuels those flames is quite well deserved. Meyer was well aware that his team could succumb to the lure of the nightlife after a hard day of practice and 20 post practice minutes of getting their collective butts chewed out.

"They weren't out Friday night in Gainesville and that's a good start," said Meyer. "From what I've heard it's a real good start. They behaved themselves and they came in and there was an important scrimmage and they got a lot done today."

The scrimmage featured some good, some bad and some things that can't be evaluated until film is broken down and analyzed. It was the last big scrimmage before next Saturday's annual Orange and Blue Game that will end the first spring practice under Meyer.

Chris Leak and Chad Jackson continued to find themselves on the same page, connecting for a 27-yarder and a 22-yarder for a touchdown on the first series of the scrimmage. Leak to Jackson would be a familiar theme throughout the morning, but there was a supporting cast Saturday as well. Bubba Caldwell had one of those days when he was making plays again. He's had an up and down spring but Saturday was one of his up days. He had some catches including a beauty of a 26-yarder from Leak, and he got to show he hasn't forgotten how to throw the football. The former Tampa Jefferson quarterback teamed up with Leak for a 25-yard touchdown on a gadget play. DeShawn Wynn ran hard between the tackles, showing enough power that he never went down with the first contact. The first team offensive line had a couple of rough spots picking up the blitz but otherwise was solid.

The defense had some outstanding moments. Tackles Ray McDonald, Steven Harris and Clint McMillan all had some plays and on the outside, Derrick Harvey and Jeremy Mincey showed they can apply heat to the quarterback. Brandon Siler continued his excellent play at middle linebacker and Todd McCullough delivered his most consistent day of the spring. In the secondary, Tremaine McCollum jumped a sideline route to intercept a Josh Portis pass and take it to the house.

"There's some good and some bad but the effort was much better today and the attitude was terrific and that's really all you ask," said Meyer, who admitted the "execution was poor," but he's been around the game long enough to know that a new team (for him) learning a new system isn't going to be consistent in terms of execution.

What he was looking for was attitude. He was looking for a team that would respond in a positive manner to rebound from Friday afternoon.

"We just had a bad practice and I would grade myself a minus for that," he said.

Prior to Friday's practice, he had his mentor, Earle Bruce, the coach who gave him his first job as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, speak to the team. Then he put the team on display, sending them to practice before the 700 or so football coaches who were attending the coaching clinic at UF.

In retrospect, Meyer knows that was a bad idea, and he made himself accountable.

"This team's not ready for that," he said. "That's for veteran experienced teams that have won a bunch of championships. That's how they get treated, not a team that's struggling. So after I thought about what we were doing and practiced, that was my fault.

"This team's got to grow up and that's not how you grow up. You grow up pounding on them and getting them tougher. I should have never done that. The team's not ready for it."

So he put the team to the test and left them to their own devices Friday night. The team knew there was a scrimmage Saturday morning and Meyer pretty much left it up to them to decide if they wanted to get ready or blow off the bad effort Friday by unwinding downtown.

He got the answer he needed at 7:30 a.m.

"Part of toughness is not just football play, but whether they're going to be coming out at 7:30 in the morning bright eyed or they're going to be wiping sleep out of their eyes and laying in their lockers like they're tired," he said. "That wasn't happening so I was pleased with that."

Whatever else happened Saturday morning was a bonus. The Gators went at it hard on the field and progress was made. The greatest progress wasn't made on the field, though. The greatest progress was made between the ears. Meyer played a head game with his team and it paid off, both for the team and for the coaching staff.

He didn't necessarily see the success of his mind bender on the field, but he didn't have to. He challenged his team. They responded. That's what he needed most of all.

DAY OFF: Center Mike Degory, still recovering from a nasty bout with mononucleosis that caused him to lose 20 pounds in January and February, got a day off from practice. He was dressed out, but didn't participate, watching as Steve Rissler filled his spot with the first team offensive line.

"He [Degory] is a three-year starter in the SEC so spring practice really isn't for him," said Meyer. "Can Mike Degory get better? Yeah. He's not a great player, he's a good player but he'll be a great player by the fall."

First team outside linebacker Earl Everett missed Saturday's scrimmage to attend a funeral and third team tight end Markell Thompson missed to deal with what Meyer termed "some personal issues."

FEETS DON'T FAIL ME NOW: One of the highlights of the practice was long runs by all three backup quarterbacks. Gavin Dickey had a 22-yarder, Josh Portis had consecutive runs of 17 and 31 yards, and Cornelius Ingram had runs of 11 and 15 yards. Meyer, while pleased with the mobility of his quarterbacks, said not all of the outstanding running by his quarterbacks is by design.

"Someone made the comment that our quarterbacks run well," said Meyer. "A lot of that is because they're behind a very poor second team offensive line. Some of them were designed runs. A lot of them were off a play when a quarterback's just scrambling for his life.

"I make the comment to them all the time that I wouldn't play quarterback behind that offensive line. I'd ask the coach why don't you like me? What are you doing to me to make me stand back there?"

Portis, a true freshman who was the all-city quarterback in Los Angeles back in the fall, showed some nifty moves on the option as well as an elusive quality when he's in the pocket. Meyer is pleased with his continued progress but admitted, "He's talented with the ball in his hand but he still plays like he was 17 at times."

Ingram had his best practice of the spring Friday and he continued to make up for time lost while doing duty for Florida's basketball team.

"Boy did he [Ingram] make a major step yesterday," Meyer said. "He's the one guy you left the field saying he had a major step, and he's getting coached hard. We're spending a lot of time with him. He's coming in on his own. He's a great kid. He's still behind but he made a major stride yesterday."

RECEIVERS: Chad Jackson has become such a playmaking force this spring that Meyer said "he's out playmaker. When you say who made that play? It's Chad Jackson."

Bubba Caldwell showed his versatility by taking an option pitch, making nice catches in the secondary and by throwing the touchdown pass to Chris Leak. It was one of his better efforts this spring.

"The guy that made a few plays today that hasn't made them all spring is Bubba," said Meyer.

Kenneth Tookes, who has spent three years languishing on the bench, has begun to make a move this spring. He's been running with the first unit and while consistency is an issue, he's starting to show reliability as a receiver.

"Last spring he wasn't very good from what I heard," said Meyer. "Academically or in football he was very poor. This spring he's academically doing much better and football he's doing much better. He's not Chad but he's making a push to get on the field."

With Jemalle Cornelius and Dallas Baker, Meyer is looking for the two of them to make big plays more consistently. Both have had some big catches, but Meyer is looking for them to break out and make the big plays more often.

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