Offense Evolved Because Of Personnel/Injuries

Ten games into year one of the Urban Meyer era of Florida football, the debate rages about the spread option offense. It hasn't worked the way Florida fans saw it work last year when Meyer had Utah putting up Star Wars numbers en route to an undefeated season. If fans are upset, that's not even close to what Meyer is feeling. The offense isn't clicking the way he wants it but he's nowhere close to scrapping the scheme.

The Gators are averaging just under 28 points a game during a 7-3 campaign that has a date remaining in The Swamp with Florida State a week from Saturday and a bowl game that has yet to be determined. The numbers aren't greatly different from the first year production at Bowling Green or at Utah, the first places that Meyer introduced his grand scheme of offensive things.

The numbers aren't all that different but some might say the offense certainly is different. The field was spread more often and there was far more option at both Bowling Green and Utah. At Florida, the offense had more wide open passing elements early on but lately it has become more of a power running game.

"I think we're doing a lot of different things now than we have in the past and a lot of it is because of the surrounding cast," said Meyer after Wednesday's practice. Injuries have played a part in changing what the Gators do in the offense and the same is true with personnel. Meyer has had to cope with the devastating loss of Bubba Caldwell and then with one nagging injury after another that has continued to deplete his wide receiver corps and limit what can be done in the passing game. There have also been injuries to the guards in the offensive line and the ongoing nagging shoulder injury to tailback DeShawn Wynn that has limited his playing time.

"We're much more of a downhill power run team than we have been for the past several weeks because we're playing with two experienced, healthy receivers," he said.

The personnel packages have been tweaked to compensate for the lack of receivers and to put more emphasis on the running game. Tate Casey has seen more action as a tight end who lines up on the shoulder of a tackle and Billy Latsko has been a find at fullback.

"You're trying to get your best 11 guys on the field," said Meyer.

Critics have railed against the spread option ever since the Alabama game, claiming that it won't work in the Southeastern Conference with its abundance of fast linebackers and defensive ends. Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen says if that's true, then why is Texas having such success running a scheme that bears a tremendous similarity to what Florida is trying to run?

"I guess I would imagine Texas is probably grateful they don't play in the SEC because that [spread option] is what they run and it seems to work pretty well for them," said Mullen. "They're number two in the country.

"You see other people doing it ---Texas being one and Oregon another one --- and they're having two great seasons … two teams doing a great job of running it in two pretty good leagues. We just have to keep working, keep polishing and we have to do a better job of preparing our guys and getting them to execute better."

The Texas offense centers around the talents of Vince Young, a natural runner who has developed into a fine passer. In Young's first two years at Texas, the book was to contain Young running the ball and force him to beat you with his arm.

Contrast that to Florida's Chris Leak, a natural passer who has struggled to find comfort and success as a runner. Leak had what appeared to be a breakout game running the ball against Vanderbilt two weeks ago when he had 12 carries for 67 yards and two touchdowns. He ran the option part of the offense well last Saturday against South Carolina but he was sacked five times and four of those sacks were because he held the ball too long rather than unload to a short receiver or run the football.

Leak's struggles to become more of a natural runner and even some problems he's had throwing the football haven't discouraged Meyer. Leak is still his quarterback and he's not displeased with the effort.

"I'm satisfied with Chris but I'm not satisfied with the offense," said Meyer. "But then again, I can't ever remember really being satisfied with the offense. You're always trying to get better and stay ahead of the curve of people catching you and I don't believe we're ahead of the curve right now."

Being below the learning curve could be in part attributed to the injury situation. Losing Caldwell was a horrendous blow. Jemalle Cornelius missed one game completely and large parts of three others with a high ankle sprain. Chad Jackson has had hamstring soreness that has limited his ability to cut and Dallas Baker missed half of one game with a sprained ankle, then broke his rib against Vandy which limited him to a handful of plays against South Carolina. Wynn has not been able to play an entire game because of the shoulder problem.

Meyer hasn't made an issue of the injuries although it's evident they have taken their toll.

"I think injuries are part of the game," he said. "It was very apparent early on that we had depth concerns at some positions but that's part of the game."

Mullen said the injuries slowed down the learning curve for the entire team because it became necessary to shuffle players around to compensate for losses.

"With injuries comes your learning curve of now we have to move this guy to this position, then he got hurt and we had to move this guy to that position," said Mullen. "So when those things happen it slows down the learning curve for all your guys out there on the field."

The injury situation has not been one of complete doom and gloom for the coaching staff however. Because of the injuries, the staff was forced to re-evaluate the talents of several players and that opened the door for Billy Latsko, who played fullback last year, to return to the offensive side of the ball after spending the spring and the first five or six games at linebacker.

Although Latsko was a standout linebacker in high school, he didn't adapt back to defense quickly but when he returned to the offense, he immediately proved that there is a place for him. Against South Carolina, he had two pass receptions for 31 yards and one touchdown. He also had a ball overthrown to him in the first quarter when he was wide open. Had the throw been catchable, he would have been able to waltz into the end zone with Florida's first touchdown of the game. Instead, the Gators had to settle for a field goal.

"Early in the season we probably did a poor job of evaluation," said Mullen. "He [Latsko] went over and played defense and did some special teams things. His natural position is the fullback position. That was a poor job by us of really identifying his talents to the best of their abilities and now that we have identified them, it's great to have a guy that in the scheme of our offense.

"We've never really had that type of a player who can do what Billy can do so we've come up with some new things to utilize Billy's talents."

The Florida offense has evolved during the season to one that is now run first but part of that evolution has been forced by the injuries to the wide receivers. The running game began to find success in recent weeks when the guards finally got healthy and the lights more or less went on.

Just because the running game is going well and doing some good things such as controlling the clock which keeps the defense off the field doesn't mean the Gators aren't trying to get the ball downfield to the receivers. Mullen said the Gators had 10 deep throws called against South Carolina.

"The first play of the game was a deep one to Chad Jackson but we didn't get the ball off," said Mullen. "There were probably about 10 of them that we called."

Of the 31 passes that the Gators got off against South Carolina, 16 times the ball traveled in the air at least 10 yards. Jackson caught a 31-yard touchdown pass for the longest gainer but he also had a drop of what would have been a 50-yard touchdown pass.

The deep passes were set up because of the success in the running game.

"We're tying to be selective when we throw the ball," said Mullen. "If you saw last week, we had them [chances to throw deep]. We were able to run the ball and we set it up. When we took our deep shots we had guys sucked up in the line to take those deep shots but we just missed them."

The missed opportunities are the difference between the Gators being 9-1 right now and heading for the SEC title game in Altanta and 7-3, hoping that a win over FSU a week from Saturday will propel them into either the Outback or the Cotton Bowl.

Mullen said that it is up to the coaches to get the players in position to make the plays as well as get them the confidence that it takes to make a play whenever the opportunity is there.

"All that comes on us [coaches]," he said. "You hear the team talk about competitive excellence so that when the time comes to make that play, you're mentally and physically prepared to make that play. As coaches the only way you're mentally and physically prepared to make that play is because you've made it over and over in practice. That's what we have to do is make sure we're exact in our teaching and the execution of it in practice during the week so that when that time comes we've put our guys in the best position to make it."

Meyer said he expects the Gators to be better offensively next year because "it's a year in the system. It's very clear to them what we expect from them in practice and what we expect in the offseason."

Meyer called last year's offseason the most important in the history of the Florida football program. He laughed Wednesday when asked if this offseason will supersede last year's as the most important.

"I've been known to say that but I really believe it," he said.

This offseason will be tremendously important if the Florida offense is to make the kind of second year strides that were seen at Bowling Green and Utah. There will be some vacant positions because seniors graduate and perhaps some players will bolt early for the NFL, but one thing to expect, particularly on offense, is that all positions will be up for grabs in the spring. Incumbents will have the first shot at their position but they will still have to fend off newcomers who have practiced a year in the system.

"Always positions are open but someone who's earned it will start and it's their job to get that spot taken from them," he said. "Guys that have played a lot of football around here, until they're beaten out that's their position. Positions are always open."

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