Changed Attitudes Equal Improved Defense

Back in February when the Florida Gators were lining up for mat drills at 6 a.m. and then again in the spring when the team went through its first practices under Coach Urban Meyer, there was a battle being waged by the coaching staff with the players. It wasn't a physical battle but instead it was a fight for the hearts and minds of the team. Attitudes, especially on the defensive side of the ball, had to change.

Changed attitudes were evident last Saturday night when the Gators held Wyoming to 222 total yards. Except for a couple of blown assignments on special teams, the defensive team would have earned the first opening game shutout since Florida hammered Division I-AA Montana State 69-0 in the season opener in 1988 and the first shutout for a Florida defense since a 52-0 win over Mississippi State in 2001.

The Gators forced Wyoming to punt the football away 10 of their 12 possessions and only allowed two third down conversions.

"Attitudes are different and that's what is good to see," said Strong. "The guys want to work hard and they are competing on every play. They want to get better and you see that in the way they're practicing."

The change in attitude is two-fold. A portion of it is the approach that is being taken by Coach Urban Meyer. Meyer demands the players compete for everything. There is a winner and a loser in every drill and every play on the practice field. Meyer wants a team that is so competitive that the thought of taking even a single play off is repulsive.

The second part of the attitude change, says Strong, is the fact that a lot of players have simply grown up. There is indeed a newfound sense of maturity among the defensive players.

"We've got a lot of guys who have been in the system awhile and now they're all a year older," said Strong. "Sometimes guys just have to grow up a little bit. There isn't any way you can coach maturity."

Meyer has talked about how the defensive line has done a total about face. When he took over the Florida job, he was cautioned that his defensive linemen were a lazy group. The collective grade point average of the unit was below 2.0 and Meyer described their on the field and off the field demeanor as something in critical need of changes.

Challenged to change the way they play football, approach their studies and handle their lives off the field, the defensive line has become a model unit for a defense that suddenly looks capable of dominance. In August practices, the defensive line was a constant source of pressure during scrimmages and that carried over into game one when they put the heavy heat on Wyoming quarterback Corey Bramlett.

The line brought the pressure and as a result, Bramlett was throwing high or too quick almost the entire evening.

"In any defense if you get pressure on the quarterback, they'll end up throwing it high or try to get it out too fast," said safety Kyle Jackson. "That's when the picks come."

Jackson said the pressure on the quarterback allows him to make quicker breaks to the ball.

"When I'm backpedaling and the quarterback is making his reads, I see the D-ends and linebackers coming to get him," said safety Kyle Jackson. "The pressure makes the ball come out fast and I can make my break fast."

Soft zones and play it safe schemes of the past few years have been replaced by an attack first mentality. The Gators are just as comfortable bringing the heat with the front four as they are overloading the opposing offense by bringing the blitz.

Defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a speed rusher who can beat tackles off the edge, likes the added pressure the Gators can bring with the blitz.

"Blitzing is an attitude," he said. "You're setting an example when you blitz. They [opponents] get tackled for a loss or sacked and that scares them. Blitzing is intimidating for another team."

Strong doesn't mind bringing pressure with the blitz, but he knows how important it is to pressure with the front four. Like Meyer, he believes that the front four could be the key to a very successful season.

"We have felt all along that if we can play consistently well on our defensive front that we have a chance to be a very special defense," he said.

TEAMMATES PRAISE BROWN: Fans may be surprised with the effort and results turned in by Vernell Brown but not his teammates. They believe what Vernell's showing on the practice field and in the season opener against Wyoming would have been seen long ago had the 5-8, 165-pound corner simply been given a chance.

"Vernell hasn't been doing anything different," said Mincey. "The Vernell you see this year is the Vernell we saw last year and the year before that. I honestly don't think he got a shot because of his size."

Jackson agrees that Brown simply needed a chance to prove himself on the field. He is not the least bit surprised that Brown is playing so well.

"It doesn't surprise me because I know his abilities," said Jackson. "I practice with him every afternoon. Everybody talks about his size and it kind of pushes him in a way. I knew he could do it and he's going to be doing it all season.

"I believe they [the coaching staff] just gave him an opportunity. The last couple of seasons they really didn't give him an opportunity and this year they did. Now you're seeing what Vernell can do."

Strong says that Brown's results on the field are a byproduct of hard work in practice and a competitive spirit.

"The thing about him is he is a competitor," said Strong. "He played 50 snaps on defense [against Wyoming] and he played a ton of snaps with the special teams. He just continues to get better. The thing you like about him is that he may not be very big but he loves to compete. There is no one that comes out here every single day and works any harder at improving than Vernell Brown."

JARVIS MOSS ON THE HORIZON: In his post-practice remarks, Meyer said that defensive end Jarvis Moss is recovered from a bone infection that was only recently diagnosed. Moss has hardly played in two years at Florida since arriving from Texas as one of the nation's top recruits.

It turns out that the injuries in the groin area that plagued Moss in his first two seasons were actually a lingering bone infection. On special antibiotics in the past few weeks, the infection has gone away and he's back at practice, looking like he will be a contributor.

"Jarvis Moss is coming along good," said Meyer. "He looked like had a serious problem when we got here in February but now he's got a chance to play, maybe not this week but next week which is a heckuva deal."

In his first two seasons, Moss struggled to put on any weight but even that problem seems to be eliminated.

"He's 240-something," said Meyer. "At one point back in the spring he was 219 and he looked like 185. It was horrible. That's one good kid."

GOOD PRACTICE: The Gators practiced in the rain Tuesday but it was a spirited practice that Meyer felt accomplished much.

"Overall it was one of our better practices," he said. "They came out with a little urgency."

Meyer said that tailback DeShawn Wynn is on pace to play Saturday night. He had a good practice Tuesday showing "work ethic, knowing his assignments, take care of the ball … all the things that tailbacks are asked to do."

The Gators aren't looking ahead one week to the September 17 matchup with Tennessee in The Swamp. This week's focus is completely on Louisiana Tech, which runs a highly unconventional defensive scheme.

"They run a wild defense," said Meyer. "They're athletic enough to beat us. All our focus this week is on Louisiana Tech."

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