Defensive Line Sets Tone For Gator Defense

On the day that Urban Meyer was announced as Florida's new football coach he was warned about his defensive linemen. He heard all sorts of negatives about the group, but the one thing that stood out the most was hearing that they were lazy. One thing that Meyer doesn't tolerate is lazy football players.

One game into the 2005 season, Meyer will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

"It's hard to imagine that I'm saying that about some guys that all I heard when I got hired on December fifth or sixth … as I'm walking out … 'you've got lazy guys playing defensive line' and that's what they were saying," said Meyer at his Monday media day. "Well, they're not lazy. They're great young men that are taking to coaching. They could be a special group if they keep going."

The defensive line of ends Ray McDonald and Jeremy Mincey and tackles Steven Harris and Marcus Thomas proved a force in the season opener against Wyoming. McDonald had the first sack of the season when he blew by Wyoming's 6-8, 325-pound Chase Johnson to nail Corey Bramlett for a nine-yard loss. McDonald's sack opened the flood gates for continuous pressure by the defensive front four that had Bramlett throwing early or on the run most of the evening.

It was the kind of effort that set the tone for a defense that allowed only 98 first half yards and 222 total yards for the game. It could have been a shutout for the defense except for two special teams breakdowns. A 66-yard kickoff return gave Wyoming the ball on the Florida 34 and a 31-yard run on a fake punt extended a drive after the Florida defense had done its job on first, second and third downs.

Getting pressure from the defensive line allowed the Gators to drop the linebackers in coverage making it difficult for Bramlett to find open targets.

"When you can get pressure with a three-man or a four man rush, you've got a lot of answers on defense," said Meyer.

Mincey, who graded out Champion's Club for the game, knows that the pressure the front four gets on the quarterback has a ripple effect throughout the defense.

"We play a lot of man to man this year and without pressure man to man is nothing," said the senior defensive end from Statesboro, Georgia. "You can't run man to man without pressure on the quarterback so it's half and half: as much as the cornerbacks cover we can get sacks and as much as we put pressure on the quarterback, they can get interceptions. It's definitely a two-way deal."

Meyer said that pressure from the front four could be this team's "secret to success." He is a coach who likes to bring linebackers, corners and safeties on the blitz because of their disruption factors, but he knows that the blitz only becomes more effective when the front four is doing its part.

"Anybody can pressure the quarterback," he said. "When you bring six when they're protecting with five someone's going to be running around free. When you have the ability to play coverage and still get pressure … the great football teams of the 90s … the Gators had some of those guys and some of them are still playing in the NFL. When you get pressure consistently, you've got a lot of answers on defense."

Meyer liked the answers he got on defense Saturday. Wyoming had 12 possessions and on 10 of the 12, Florida forced the Cowboys to punt. Actually, it was 11 of 12 times but the Cowboys ran the fake for a 31-yard gain that extended the drive and got Wyoming in position to score its second touchdown of the game.

"Their special teams coordinator … I've known him a long time," said Meyer. "Jogging across the field I wanted to knock him out! I knew he would do that and it was my fault. A fake punt to put our defense in that position is nonsense and it won't happen again."

The other Wyoming touchdown was set up by the long kickoff return that put the Cowboys on the Florida 35 to start their drive. Without those two special teams breakdowns, the Florida defense would have gotten an opening day shutout.

"To let them start on the plus 35 and then give them a fake punt … you take those out and you pitch a shutout against a very good team," he said.

The Gators allowed Wyoming just two of 13 third down conversions and the Gators held the ball 34:29 to Wyoming's 25:31. Florida forced two Wyoming turnovers and the Gators didn't turn the ball over once.

"You rarely lose a game when you take care of the ball and you hold on to it that long," he said.

Although one game doesn't equate to a dominating season on defense, Meyer thinks this unit has the chance to be outstanding. "You watch the film and we're close to what you envision Florida defense to look like," he said. "Are we there yet? No … some people have to play a little better."

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: Meyer has a four-part formula for success by which he grades the team's performance. Part one is defense and he thought the defense more than handled its assignments for a successful outing.

Secondly, the team has to take care of the ball. The Gators finished plus two in the turnover department, recovering one Wyoming fumble and getting an interception from Vernell Brown. The Gators fumbled the ball three times but didn't turn it over.

The third factor is red zone production. Meyer said the Gators went four for four in that department although he grades it as two for four because on two of Florida's four trips into the red zone, the Gators had to settle for field goals.

"We get paid to score touchdowns," he said.

The final factor was the kicking game. The Gators hit seven of their ten goals in the kicking game and their net punting average was 43 yards. Eric Wilbur punted four times for a 44.5 yard average and the Gators gave up only six return yards.

"You hit seven out of your goals 80 percent of the time you're winning your games," Meyer said. "That's an NFL study they did a long time ago but we still live by that."

FIELD POSITION: Meyer is a firm believer in winning the field position game. He's not afraid to punt the football especially if it pins the other team deep inside its own territory. The goal is to force opponents to start inside their own 10-yard line as often as possible.

Meyer knows the odds are poor for scoring against a defense when the offense faces a long field.

"On a national average if you start a team within their own 10 yard line, three percent of the time they'll score points," he said. "Three out of 100 times they'll score points and not being a very smart person I can understand that. If you kick the ball down there all the time and they're starting inside the 10 they're probably not going to score. Two examples of not getting field position are the special teams issues which we will get corrected."

UPON FURTHER REVIEW: After watching the films, Meyer wasn't as displeased with the running game as he was when he made his post game remarks Saturday night. The blocking wasn't as bad as he thought, largely because there were mistakes made at other positions beside the offensive line.

He cited quarterback Chris Leak for making slow reads on two or three occasions and on a third and one, said that freshman tailback Kestahn Moore just froze.

"There's a lot of timing in the run game especially shotgun runs," he said.

The offense finished the night with 411 total yards but the bulk of the net yardage came in the passing game where Leak threw for 320 yards. The running game produced 176 positive yards but there was only a net of 91 because of sacks and 43 yards lost on two fumbles. The coach said a lot of emphasis will be placed on the running game this week.

"The running game is the biggest thing," he said. "Our option element was non-existent and our inside running game, too. You take the inside running game and option out and you're throwing the ball. We'll work hard on that."

The wide receivers have to improve their blocking also for the running game to improve. Chad Jackson turned in a spectacular game with three touchdown receptions out of his ten catches that netted 139 yards, but Jackson did not make Champion's Club for the game.

"Coach (Billy) Gonzalez (wide receivers coach) is probably the hardest grader on the staff," said Meyer. "If you block the perimeter or you make a one-handed highlight on ESPN Sports Center catch it equates the same. That catch was worth a plus but it was worth a minus when he didn't block very well on the edge so that equated that out."

Meyer said that for the perimeter run game to get going the wide receivers have to handle their blocking assignments.

"We're close and they're much better than they were but that's what you have to see in a guy like Chad Jackson. It's much more than making a one-handed catch."

DESHAWN WYNN UPDATE: Wynn sat out game one but Meyer said that the junior tailback will be evaluated in practice Tuesday and Wednesday to determine if he will play against Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

"You earn the right to play at the University of Florida," said Meyer. "If he has a good Tuesday and Wednesday then he'll play."

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