Meyer believes that good defense starts with the play of the defensive line. If the D-line is doing its job, stuffing the run and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, good things will happen. What he saw in February told him why so often bad things happened to the Gators late in games.
"When we started our mat drills, it was comical the effort and attitude that we had … I mean comical," said Meyer after Thursday morning's practice. "It was borderline about as bad as I've ever seen a group of people."
Meyer felt the telling lack of effort at the 6 a.m. conditioning drills that are a combination of everything from Denise Austin to team sumo wrestling was indicative of a lack of effort in every other aspect of the lives of his defensive front.
"You saw their GPAs and I think everyone of them was below a 2.0," he said. The spillover didn't just stop there, either. He didn't like what he saw in the way they were conducting their lives off campus either.
"It was a joke," he said.
The joke that was February has become the sterling example in August of what happens when a coach whose approach is more whole-life sees his continuous preaching of getting life's priorities straight taking hold. The slackers of February have become the leaders in August on the practice field, in the classroom (collective GPA well above 2.0 and rising) and in life.
The transformation began during those mat drills. Florida's defensive linemen found themselves challenged at every step in those early mornings but the challenges didn't stop there. Suddenly they had Coach Greg Mattison to worry about, too.
They found out quickly that there is no excuse for missing classes, but when they finished classes, they quite often found Mattison waiting for them. During mandatory study sessions, Mattison was ever present so there was no sleeping, no daydreaming and no slacking off.
Maybe it was the always present "big brother" that forced the turnaround or perhaps it was simply players responding to a challenge, but at some point changes began. What has made this transformation so satisfying for Meyer is that his defensive linemen weren't content just to change a few things in their lives, but that they have begun asserting themselves as team leaders.
"Now you see them trying to lead by example," said Meyer. "That's a good group now. Maybe in 20 years of coaching that was a bad a group of individuals as far as academics as far as everything …now they're super.
"Everything is in order. Their lives are in order. They're doing a great job."
The first unit defensive line of Ray McDonald and Jeremy Mincey at the ends and Steven Harris and Marcus Thomas at the tackles are showing the potential to become a tremendous unit through the first week and a half of August drills. Quality depth is being formed with Joe Cohen, Clint McMillan, Javier Estopinan and Derrick Harvey.
"Our defensive line is the most improved area on the team," said Meyer.
THE GOLF CART: With practices taking place on the recreational fields beside the Southwest Rec Center on campus, Meyer has taken to driving a golf cart to and from practice. It's about a 10-minute hop from the stadium to the practice field, but Meyer says it's often the best ten minutes of his day.
"I don't ever get to talk to guys one-on-one," said Meyer, who drove away from Thursday's practice with Brian Crum in the passenger seat. "That's my best 10 minutes of the day. I get to spend some time with my players."
If the ride takes more than 10 minutes, there's a reason.
"It depends on if I take a couple of detours if we're dealing with some issues," he said.
Crum, apparently, is not one of those players with issues. Meyer said that the 6-3, 237-pound linebacker from Woodbine, Georgia is "doing very well … he's going to play a lot of football for us."
INJURY UPDATE: Chad Jackson had some heat problems Thursday and Dallas Baker had a strained back. Neither of the problems was serious and both will be back practicing on Friday.
Running back DeShawn Wynn had a problem with some cramping but he's another who will be back at practice on Friday. Linebacker Todd McCullough was held out of practice once again because of a sore knee, but the injury is not serious.
Jarvis Moss continues to recover from a bone infection that was only recently diagnosed. Moss could be cleared to get ready to practice in two or three weeks.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR BAKER: Meyer said that Dallas Baker's extraordinary spring has carried over into August. Expectations are high for the 6-3, 204-pound junior wide receiver from New Smyrna Beach.
"I'd put him on borderline greatness as far as having a fall camp," said Meyer. "He's done super."
Held out of practice because of tightness in his back, Baker didn't want to spend the session on the sideline.
"He had a tight back today so we held him out on purpose and he was upset about that," said Meyer.
Baker is another player who is changing perceptions. Long known as a player who showed up in the spring but had tendencies to disappear in the fall, Baker is having his first solid August camp since he arrived on campus. He's become a leader on the field and his off the field performance has been an eye-opener as he has turned in three consecutive 3.0 or better GPAs in the classroom.
"The reputation of Dallas Baker is not what he really is," said Meyer. "He's a great kid and he's going to have a great year for that."
Meyer said that he wishes more of his players would make the life-altering changes that Baker has made.
"I wish they all would," said Meyer. "There are a couple on the fringe that I would like to see take that step. It's a hard step because now you're held accountable. It's easy to be that jack-off that just isn't held accountable."
AUGUST SURPRISES: Asked if there are any surprises so far in practice, Meyer immediately responded with the names Nick Brooks and Reggie Lewis. Brooks has suddenly emerged as a playmaker since he was shifted from corner to safety, and the lights have suddenly come on for Lewis, who is making the transition from wide receiver to corner.
Lewis made his presence known in Thursday's practice with an interception that Meyer said is one of the best he's ever seen. Lewis not only made the pick but he took the ball to the house.
"Nick Brooks ... you've never heard of Nick Brooks and neither have I," said Meyer of the fourth-year junior from Warner Robins, Georgia. "Now he's going to play a lot for us this year."
Meyer said that with Lewis, Brooks and the continuing emergence of Vernell Brown at corner, "I really like our back end right now."