Meyer Has Raised Expectations For Defense

There has always been this air of expectation about the Florida offense since the day that Urban Meyer was announced as the Gators' head coach. With Chris Leak to throw the ball and a Fab Four of wide receivers to catch to go with a veteran offensive line, no one has doubted that at some point the offense would be trigger happy, looking for yet another score. Four days into fall practice, however, it's the defense showing the first signs of turning into an outstanding unit.

After the first morning of having all the players together for the first time in one single practice, Meyer was obviously pleased with what he's seeing from a defensive unit that showed that in pass-skel and team drills to be much improved since the end of spring.

"The first team defense, their attitude, the way look, the way they run around … attitude is where you start and it's only the third day of practice, but I love the attitude of the first team defense," he said after Thursday morning's practice session ended.

In the first three days of practice, the big news has been on the defensive side of the ball. Ray McDonald has been moved from defensive tackle to the end position which gives the Gators the look of a big time front four. In the secondary, where there has been so much concern about the corner opposite Dee Webb, Vernell Brown has played the best football of his career, to the point that Meyer says the position is his.

The move of McDonald makes sense, according to co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong because it allows Florida to put its best players on the field. McDonald and Jeremy Mincey will be the ends with Steven Harris, a converted end, moving fulltime to tackle next to Marcus Thomas.

"We're just trying to find our best football players and then put them in position to where we can move them and get the best players on the field," said Strong, who says that McDonald is "big, powerful and quick."

Meyer believes the move will bring out the best in McDonald, who has had some outstanding moments at defensive tackle, just not enough of them.

"Ray's really good," said Meyer. "Ray right now is ahead of everyone else as far as pass rush. He's big and he's fast and I think he can make an impact at defensive end almost more than he can as a three technique (defensive tackle) and he's shown that the first three days."

Vernell blankets Dallas Baker

Getting more out of the pass rush is critical to the success of the defense, particularly in light of last year's anemic sack totals. Florida only got to the passer 23 times in 12 games last season. It could be a fault in the previous scheme or it could be a case of players not getting the most from their ability. He points to the preseason All-SEC selections from which McDonald and Thomas were noticeably absent.

"Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas I think are terrific players and yet they are nowhere to be seen on preaseason All-SEC and I don't understand that," said Meyer. "If they were bad players then that's part of the deal and you have to somehow make it better, but I see very talented guys who for some reason, they have not earned the respect of the SEC.

"That's difficult, I hope, for them to take, and it's difficult for Greg Mattison (co-defensive coordinator, defensive line coach) to take. They are talented guys who really haven't played to their ability. They have been challenged over and over. They were challenged today and they responded."

Meyer likes what he sees of the front four on the first team, but he's wary of the depth situation. Developing a rotation on the defensive line will be critical for Florida to maintain the level of intensity that Meyer demands for the full 60 minutes of a game.

Coach Mattison talks about great effort… finish is the word he uses all the time," said Meyer. "You can't ask a kid to go 70 plays hard on the defensive line … you just can't because they're running all over the place. You have to go hard for 5-6 plays then the backup has to come in. That's where (Clint) McMillan, Javier (Estopinan), (Lutrell) Alford, Derrick Harvey, Joe Cohen … all those guys have to be as good as the starters so we can rotate guys."

At the corner opposite Dee Webb, Vernell Brown has played the position like there is no tomorrow, establishing himself as the true starter. Meyer knows that Brown is only 5-8, 165, but he says that Vernell has shown in practices that he is more than ready to meet the challenge on the field.

"He's actually playing probably as good as Dee Webb," said Meyer. "Vernell Brown is playing lights out. I know he's small, I know he's this and I know he's that, but you go watch the film and you see he can do it."

Meyer said he thought all along that Brown could step up his game to the level that he expects for a starting cornerback.

"You know I did just because I put him in the same category as Brandon Siler," said Meyer, who earlier said that the only way you will ever see Siler in 'The Pit' is if there is a broken bone. "Just watch him (Brown) play. I love Vernell Brown. He's the face of Florida football. He's what you want out there. He's got his degree. He's a classy guy who's from Gainesville. It all helps. He's just a great worker who's turning into a great player."

Meyer said that while Brown's play is encouraging, there is still work to do at the position because it is imperative for the Gators to develop four corners who are capable of playing.

"You're going to see four receivers at a time," he said. "In our offense if you see safeties covering receivers that's where we're going to throw the ball because they're not man-to-man guys. We need four corners who can play and we haven't got that yet."

Freshman Avery Atkins has shown a lot of ability but he's still got much to learn. In Thursday's practice, Reggie Nelson spent a lot of time as the nickel back but also saw some action at corner. Dawayne Grace and Tremaine McCullom have also had some good moments at the position.

THE DICKEY WATCH: Gavin Dickey wore a blue jersey today and not the red no-contact jersey of a quarterback. He's spent all his time at wide receiver in the four days of fall practice. While Meyer keeps saying that Dickey will take some quarterback snaps, he is still taking all his reps at wideout now.

"He's got to play," said Meyer. "He's got to help us."

Dickey will get a real taste of receiver when full pads go on Friday and there is full contact.

"Catching the ball is a lot different when you have Brandon Siler ready to jack you after you catch it," said Meyer.

MORE ON SILER: Earlier in the week Meyer called Siler the leader of the team, although he won't be a team captain since he doesn't allow sophomores to be team captains. The coach expounded more on Siler Thursday, saying that Siler is more than a leader. He's also a great player.

"What makes him a great player is he loves the game," said Meyer. "He shows up every day. You'll never see Siler in 'The Pit' unless he has something broken. He cannot leave the field.

"That's what makes him a great player, what makes him a great linebacker. If he played safety he would be a great safety. He studies it (the game) and he loves to play."

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