Injury Bug Has Become A Full Blown Epidemic

The injury bug has become a full blown epidemic for the Florida Gators who could use a couple of Jonas Salks with miracle cures this week or at the very least, a faith healer. Injuries will be a serious concern all week and how well the Gators either learn to cope or get people healed could go a long way toward determining the outcome in Columbia when Florida squares off with South Carolina.

The bad news in Florida's 49-42 double overtime win over Vanderbilt Saturday was the loss of senior cornerback Vernell Brown with a fractured fibula. Brown will be out 4-6 weeks so there is a chance he could play in Florida's bowl game but that's of little consolation for a Gator secondary that's razor thin at the corners. Brown's injury has the Florida coaching staff scrambling to find solutions for that position while holding its collective breaths about the status of defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, tailback DeShawn Wynn and wide receiver Dallas Baker.

Thomas, who had back surgery in the spring, tweaked his lower back against Vanderbilt. Wynn, who has been battling a shoulder problem all season, took a hard pop directly to the shoulder during Florida's first offensive series against Vandy and he never returned after that. Baker, who was already playing on a sprained ankle, took a hard shot in the back at the 12 minute mark of the second quarter that forced him to the sideline the rest of the way. He is being evaluated to determine if he has a fractured rib or two.

Reggie Lewis, who has played mostly in nickel situations, was called on to replace Brown. Although he struggled in some situations and had a couple of critical holding calls, Lewis did come up with the game-clinching interception in the second overtime. The depth behind Lewis is true freshman Avery Atkins. There is also the possibility that Reggie Nelson, who has settled in as the starter at free safety, will move to corner.

The depth situation at corner could force the Gators to play more zone coverage than normal although Meyer said during his media teleconference Sunday morning that the man coverage will not be totally abandoned because "it's what we are and who we are but we're certainly going to evaluate it."

Lewis will have the first shot at holding Brown's job but Meyer said the Avery Atkins learning curve will be accelerated during the week with consideration given to moving Kyle Jackson back to free safety and Reggie Nelson handling some of the corner duties. Nelson had moments when he looked capable of handling corner coverage during August two-a-days.

"We like to play man coverage and obviously we have little depth [because of injuries] in certain areas and that's one of them [cornerback]," said Meyer. "Teams that are battling for a championship in November have to find a way to overcome it."

The status of the other walking wounded will be updated Sunday and Monday. Probably the greatest concern is with Thomas and Ray McDonald on the defensive line. Thomas is playing outstanding football and he is Florida's largest (306 pounds) and most physical tackle. McDonald has been battling back from knee surgery after a torn ACL suffered in the third game of the season against Tennessee.

"Ray McDonald is not the same player," said Meyer. "He didn't play very much [against Vandy] and ever since his Tennessee injury, he has not been the same player."

Meyer said that Wynn will have an MRI on his shoulder to determine if there is serious damage or if it's simply a deep bruise that just can't heal because he's always taking hits in that area.

Two other players who were dinged up in the Vandy game were linebacker Earl Everett and safety Jarvis Herring.

"Earl Everett was about 75 percent because of a contusion (thigh) he received in the Georgia game and it flared up on him," said Meyer. "Jarvis Herring was operating in a very limited role."

Herring suffered a quad contusion in the Georgia game that flared up on him when he took a hit directly to the injured area.

"We had to take him off special teams because of it," said Meyer. "He was not playing the way he normally does."

Especially with his defensive players, Meyer said, "We have to get those guys in there. Without them it's going to be very tough for us to compete if we don't have those players in there."

LEAK PLAYED SMART: Meyer praised quarterback Chris Leak (32-41, 257 yards, three touchdowns passing; 67 yards rushing, two touchdowns) for his patience against a Vanderbilt defense that was determined to keep the game in front of the safeties. "Vanderbilt certainly was playing deep in the coverage," said Meyer. "We had a few deep balls called because we wanted to take a shot down the field but they did a good job. They were going to give you the underneath and take away the deep. I thought Chris managed the offense very well in that situation."

Leak threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Jemalle Cornelius in the second overtime, an excellent touch pass that found his wide receiver in the right corner of the north end zone. Cornelius outleaped the Vandy corner and a safety who came over to help for the ball, then got both feet down in bounds.

"That was a great catch," said Meyer. "It was a little naked pass that we had in there for Chris and basically the tight end and fullback were the first two looks. Jemalle was to outside release and work the back of the end line and he made a great play That was a great play and it was a game winner."

MANSON, MOORE AND LATSKO: The Gators got a boost against Vanderbilt from Markus Manson, Kestahn Moore and Billy Latsko. Manson and Moore stood out as DeShawn Wynn's replacements while Latkso's role expanded beyond just blocking to include three pass receptions.

"Markus Manson missed a few runs, missed a few cuts but I thought he played hard," said Meyer. "Kestahn Moore ran awful hard as well for a true freshman."

Manson had 61 rushing yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. He also caught six passes for 48 yards. Moore got three carries for 28 yards and he had three receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown. Counting Wynn's 20 yards on four carries and his one catch for nine yards, the tailback position produced 109 yards on 25 carries and one touchdown and 10 catches for 87 yards and one score.

Latsko had his first three catches of the season (good for 12 yards) and he had a touchdown catch called back because of a holding penalty.

"We missed some perimeter blocks with him but his role in the offense has expanded and that includes coming out of the backfield catching some passes," said Meyer. "You think about it, 4-5 weeks ago he was a third string linebacker. He told me he played about 15 plays a game last year [on offense as a fullback]. He's playing a little more than that on offense now."

PLAYING FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP: Meyer said the Gators are highly motivated because they are still very much in the hunt for the SEC East championship. Because South Carolina still has a shot at the SEC East and it's going to be Steve Spurrier against his old school, Meyer expects a big time atmosphere in Columbia Saturday.

"This is a championship, this not just South Carolina against Florida," he said. "The SEC East is right in the middle of this thing. There are a lot of things playing."

The media hype will center around Spurrier coaching against his alma mater where he won a Heisman Trophy and then coached the team to a national championship. Meyer said there are a lot of other factors that should contribute to the game time atmosphere.

"I bet the atmosphere is going to be outstanding," he said. "The University of Florida is playing South Carolina and you have two teams competing for not only bowl bids but I think SC is still in the race for the SEC East. That's a very good team we're going to play so there is a lot to play for and two pretty good teams going against each other."

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