Secondary Has To Regain Confidence This Week

The fragile balance that has been maintained on the Florida defense all season long has been complicated by an injury situation that has Coach Urban Meyer and his staff not only scrambling to find players to plug in but also to rebuild confidence, especially in the secondary.

With the Gators coming off a game in which they were torched for 361 passing yards and facing Steve Spurrier Saturday in Columbia, the challenge to steady a shaken secondary is critical this week.

Florida's defense has been among the best in the nation all season but the Gators knew before the season began that due to depth problems, avoiding injuries would be imperative. Until the Vandy game, the Gators had been fortunate that there weren't so many dinged up players at the same time. The injuries began to mount against Vanderbilt Saturday and the depth problems were exposed. The injury situation for Saturday's game at South Carolina is dicey at best for the Gators. .

Starting cornerback Vernell Brown is out the remainder of the regular season with a broken fibula. Defensive end Ray McDonald's play has been limited since he came back from a knee injury suffered in the Tennessee game. Marcus Thomas is having some issues with his back. Linebacker Earl Everett has been playing through a serious thigh bruise and strong safety Jarvis Herring's many bumps and bruises limited his role in the secondary and kept him off special teams against Vandy, a place where he has excelled all season.

Thomas should be able to play Saturday in Columbia against South Carolina although his back, operated on back in the spring, will be carefully monitored during the week. Everett and Herring will see limited practice time this week as the Gators try to get them healed up by game time.

As for McDonald, Meyer said, "He hasn't been right since Tennessee. He's not playing a lot of football for us right now. We just keep encouraging him and he's fighting through it. He's not the same football player that he was."

The area of chief concern Saturday against South Carolina will be the secondary. Florida will be going against the coach who basically wrote the book on a wide open passing game in Spurrier, whose Florida offenses from 1990-2001 were always among the nation's best. In his first year at South Carolina, Spurrier's Gamecocks don't exactly resemble the aerial circuses that he had when he was with the Gators, but they aren't bad.

Spurrier's quarterback Blake Mitchell ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in passing with 15 touchdowns and 224.8 yards per game. Mitchell's top target is redshirt freshman Sidney Rice, who leads the SEC with 12 touchdown catches. Rice has 46 catches for 718 yards (15.6 yards per catch).

The Gators fell from fifth nationally to tenth after giving up 419 total yards Saturday against Vanderbilt. Giving up 361 yards and four touchdown passes to Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler dropped the Florida pass defense into a national tie at the number 25 position.

Part of Florida's troubles in the secondary can be attributed to the loss of Brown, who was having an All-SEC type season a cornerback. On the defensive series prior to breaking his leg, he ended a Vandy drive with an interception. In his place was Reggie Lewis, who was a wide receiver last year. Lewis has gotten a good bit of action in the nickel position this season but Saturday he had his first extensive action. He got burned a couple of times and he got caught on a couple of holding calls, but when it counted most he had an interception that saved the win for the Gators.

Cutler's performance had much to do with Florida's problems in the secondary as Brown's absence. Cutler was razor sharp against the Gators, hitting 28 of 42 passes and making outstanding decisions on the run while avoiding the Florida pass rush. Meyer called Saturday's effort a win against "a highly draftable quarterback" at Monday's media conference. Meyer said that Cutler is one of the best quarterbacks he's faced as a head coach.

First on the agenda this week will be to get Lewis as many reps as possible at corner and speed up the development of his backup, true freshman Avery Atkins. Atkins is a big time talent, but most of his action this season has been spent on special teams. He will likely see the field in some critical situations against South Carolina since the Gamecocks have very little in the way of a running game.

"He's a true a true freshman and he's going to take more of an active role," said Meyer. "He's a little like Markus Manson was earlier in the year, like Nyan Boateng on offense right now in that they have just not stepped across that line to become a major college football player yet. We're waiting and we're going to push him as hard as we can because he has talent."

It's likely that Kyle Jackson will more action at the free position with Reggie Nelson seeing some action at the nickel position as the Gators try to find ways to compensate for Brown's loss.

Finding an answer won't be easy, particularly since Brown is a heady, intelligent player who just doesn't make mistakes. Brown's on the field leadership can't be replaced although Meyer said that the senior from Gainesville will definitely accompany the team on the trip since he is such an emotional leader for the Gators off the field.

With all these complications there is that issue of confidence that Meyer and his staff will have to address.

"How do you get the confidence back?" he asked rhetorically at his Monday press conference. "The only way is a successful week of practice. You have to have a great week of practice. That's the only way to get the confidence back."

Cutler's performance definitely got the attention of coaches and players who are well aware that Spurrier is one of college football's true geniuses when it comes to the passing game. There weren't many positives to be found in the secondary play against Vanderbilt although Meyer says what happened was certainly an attention grabber.

"The one positive is it will not be overconfidence and lack of preparation after what happened Saturday," he said. "We were exposed. We didn't play very well. You like to give all the credit to the quarterback and they had some receivers who made some plays but we've got to step up and make a play."

What happened in the secondary was a microcosm of what happened for Florida's entire defensive unit. So solid and so steady against Georgia the week before that Meyer basically turned the game over to them in the second half, they were shaky and confused in those final eight minutes of regulation when Vandy came from 14 points down to tie the game.

Florida was saved somewhat by an offense that had five drives of at least nine plays, three of which went at least 12 plays. Florida's offense, which had to dink and dunk because the Commodores were playing their safeties 30 yards off the ball to prevent Florida from using the middle of the field and going deep, actually proved to be the most effective defense against Vandy.

Due to the way Vandy played its defense, the Gators ran the ball more (42 rushing plays) and the throwing game was pretty much limited to the short stuff. Quarterback Chris Leak, the Southeastern Conference's Offensive Player of the Week, took the plays Vandy gave for 257 passing yards, hitting 32 of 41 passes. There just weren't many opportunities for deeper throws, but in the long run that actually helped Florida by eating up valuable clock time.

"We didn't have very many big ones [plays]," said Meyer. "Vandy was playing very deep so they forced us to take the underneath stuff and Chris did a very good job."

Florida actually had a chance to make some big plays, particularly in the final eight minutes, but on three occasions, the Gators came up short.

"We had a chance to intercept a pass, we had a chance to sack him [Cutler] one time and he got out there and made a 30 yard pass completion and we had a chance to recover onside kick that would pretty much close the deal and we didn't do that," said Meyer.

CHAMPIONS: For the first time this season, no Gators on the defensive side of the ball graded out champion. For the second straight week, the offensive line had a great performance and that resulted in champion grades for tackles Randy Hand and Lance Butler, guards Tavares Washington, Steven Rissler and Drew Miller, and center Mike Degory. Meyer was impressed with the number of knockdown blocks turned in by his linemen.

Also grading champion were Leak, wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius, tight end Tate Casey and running backs Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore. Manson was selected the SEC's Freshman Offensive Player of the Week.

BAKER DOUBTFUL: Baker has a broken rib and a punctured lung. His status for Saturday is extremely doubtful. Meyer said he is expecting an update on Baker's condition later in the day on Monday.

Baker had one catch for 12 yards Saturday before he caught a knee in the back in the second quarter. Baker was also coming back from a badly sprained ankle at the time. For the season, Baker has 38 catches for 492 yards and two touchdowns.

With Baker out, Meyer expects freshman Nyan Boateng to step up his role in the offense this week. Boateng had one catch for 10 yards against Vandy. Meyer said an increased role in the offense for Boateng will have everything to do with how the talented freshman practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"He has to practice much better than he has," said Meyer. "We're down to the nubs at wide receiver right now."

Meyer also said some thought has been given to removing the redshirt off freshman wide receiver David Nelson, who has had outstanding practices the past two or three weeks.

WYNN UPDATE: An MRI Sunday revealed no structural damage to junior tailback DeShawn Wynn's shoulder. Wynn left the game Saturday in the first quarter after carrying four times for 20 yards and catching one pass for nine yards.

Wynn will be limited in practice this week as the Gators hope to have him ready to give at least a few plays against South Carolina. Manson and Moore will probably split the carries at tailback in practice this week.

AUBURN FANS: The Gators can win the SEC Eastern Division title with a win over South Carolina Saturday coupled with a Georgia loss to Auburn in Athens Saturday night. The loss would put Georgia and Florida with two SEC losses but the Gators would win the championship and the berth in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta by virtue of the head to head win against Georgia.

Asked if he had words of encouragement for Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville, Meyer said, "Maybe I should send him a good luck card or something."


Fightin Gators Top Stories