1st Year Offensive Struggles Familiar For HBC

In so many ways, they are mirror images of each other, these first seasons under Urban Meyer at Utah (2003) and Florida (2005). That first year Meyer was at Utah, the Utes struggled on offense, won some critical games with their defense and had a lot of fans saying they knew all along that this newfangled spread option offense may have worked well in the Mid-American Conference where the defenders were slower but it darn sure wouldn't work at this level of competition.

Utah finished 10-2 that first year, closing out a season of so much offensive inconsistency that Meyer turned things over to his defense in the last two games of the year, a 3-0 win over Brigham Young in a game that was played in a blizzard and a 17-0 win over Southern Mississippi in the Liberty Bowl. Just getting through those two games with wins was critical and the moment the clock struck zero in the Liberty Bowl, the hard work began to tweak the offense for the 2004 season. There was plenty of hard work that had to be done to get the Utah offense on track but the effort paid off with an undefeated, record-setting 2004 season that vaulted quarterback Alex Smith to the top selection in the NFL draft.

Florida's first year under Meyer bears a strong resemblance to Utah's 2003 season. The offense has scaled a few minor peaks and plunged into far deeper valleys in a year where the key words have been injury and inconsistency.There has been so mucn inconsistency that fans and media critics have claimed Meyer's spread option offense just won't work in the Southeastern Conference, just like the fans at Utah were saying that it wouldn't work in the Mountain West Conference.

And just like the defense came through in the final regular season game of 2003 for Utah against its arch-rival BYU, Florida's defense came through with a crushing effort against arch-rival FSU in the last game of the regular season. Even though the offense will have more healthy bodies available in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on January 2, it's likely that Meyer is going to rely on Florida's nationally seventh-ranked defense (289.8 yards per game) to set the pace against an Iowa team that shows great balance between the pass (233 yards per game) and run (181 yards per game).

Playing hard in the bowl game and coming out with a win is important for Meyer. He wants that winning momentum of beating FSU and Iowa to carry over into a spring practice and offseason that he hopes will replicate what happened leading up to year two at Utah. In the offseason, the offense will be tweaked to match better with the talents of his players and a lot of new players will be moved in to starting positions.

The player who will be under the most scrutiny in the offseason will be quarterback Chris Leak. Leak's numbers for 2005 aren't all that bad --- 210-334 passing for 2,361 yards and 18 touchdowns along with six rushing touchdowns --- but he's had games when he was a lost ball in the high weeds. Smith went from similar numbers and struggles as Leak's in his first year in the offense to gaudy stats in 2004 --- 631 rushing yards for 10 touchdowns and 214-317 passing for 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Meyer said that Smith's first year was not a true indicator of how well his quarterback would play in year two.

"If you look at the stats [2003] they were terrible," he said. "We spent a lot of time in the offseason getting him ready and getting everybody else ready and we had a good year."

Meyer sees a lot of similarities in Smith and Leak, both in the way they played in the first year in the offense and the character of the two quarterbacks. He likes Leak as a leader just as he feels that Smith was the ultimate leader the Utes needed to go unbeaten in 2004. He's quick to give Smith credit for being an outstanding quarterback but he also will tell you that Smith have that fantastic 2004 season all alone.

"Alex Smith got a lot of attention but we had the best line in the Mountain West Conference, the best receivers in the Mountain West conference and two fo the best tailbacks in the Mountain West Conference," said Meyer. "It we have the two best tailbacks, great receivers and a great line, I've got a feeling that Chris will have a great year next year."

Florida's struggles on offense in 2005 can be attributed to a combination of the transition to a new offense in Meyer's first year and debilitating injuries. The Gators lost their best threat to stretch a defense in wide receiver Bubba Caldwell to a broken leg in game three. Jemalle Cornelius had a breakout game the next week at Kentucky, but he suffered a high ankle sprain the next week at Alabama and that limited him until the FSU game. Dallas Baker sprained an ankle in the first half against Georgia, then broke a rib and punctured a lung the next week against Vanderbilt. Chad Jackson had to fight his way through a number of nicks and dings that slowed him down. Tailback DeShawn Wynn was never healthy during the season as a tender shoulder and other assorted dings kept him from ever running at full speed. On the offensive line, Tavares Washington's bad elbow finally came around at midseason and Jim Tartt played through a bad shoulder and a serious ankle sprain. Mike Degory's MCL limited things he could have done.

The injury to Caldwell was critical because he was such a threat in the passing game he opened up one-on-one coverage for Cornelius, Jackson and Baker. He was also a threat to run the ball on reverses and Florida's best kick returner. Florida's depth at the position was limited already, and there wasn't a playmaker of his caliber.

"We have to get some depth," said Meyer. "If a guy gets hurt everybody looks at each other and says uh oh. When Bubba Caldwell [went down] there wasn't a person on the sideline that didn't know that was a major injury. When Jemalle Cornelius against Alabama that was a double uh oh and obviously when Dallas Baker went down against Georgia.

"What we need is a lot of depth and consistency so that when you lose a guy, Chris Leak is not in a panic because we don't have someone ready to go. Hopefully with this class coming in and the development of these young guys we'll have that consistency if something should happen [next year]."

The incoming recruiting class could be the best in the nation when it's completed. It will include the kind of speed and playmaking ability to give the Gators the depth they need at wide receiver and tailback and there are quality players who will add depth instantly on the offensive line and at linebacker.

There are four players who redshirted as freshmen this year that have caught Meyer's attention, too.

"Ryan Stamper (linebacker) … I'm really excited about him because he goes hard every play," said Meyer. "David Nelson (wide receiver) is another one that I'm really about and probably Simon Codrington at tackle. Ronnie Wilson would be the fourth. He probably could have played this year but I'm glad we held onto him. He'll have to play [next year] because we lose four starters up front." GOOD PRACTICE: The team worked out in shorts and shells Tuesday. They will practice Wednesday morning before they break for Christmas and then they will regroup in Tampa for the week of practices prior to the Outback Bowl. Meyer liked the way his team went at it Tuesday.

"I thought today was fantastic," said Meyer. "Today was one of our better practices. I'm really proud of these guys. They're practicing to go win a bowl game."

Meyer said that he's trying to work the team hard so they won't lose that toughness they were demonstrating at the end of the regular season.

"How do you do that?" he said. "You just practice them real hard. That's the only way I know how to do it. You can talk to them about it all you want but you practice them hard and put them in tough situations."

When told that Todd McCullough is the only Gator on this team who has ever played in a winning bowl game, Meyer said, "That shouldn't happen. We need to win this one."

EARNING TIME ON THE FIELD: Meyer has been criticized in some circles for not emptying his bench against Florida State. Particularly, he was blasted by the mother of now transferred freshman quarterback Josh Portis. Patricia Portis ripped Meyer in the press for not putting her son in the game when it was obvious that Florida was going to thrash the Seminoles.

"Someone called me and said why didn't you get everybody in against FSU?" Meyer said. "You EARN playing time and I don't know what's been done in the past but you earn your playing time."

Meyer said that is the objective even for a bowl game.

"The objective is to win the game so if it's a senior, a junior or a sophomore we're going to go try to win that game at all costs at the Outback Bowl," he said.

One who is working hard to earn his playing time is redshirt freshman Cornelius Ingram, a third stringer at quarterback this year who is now working out as a hybrid H-back/tight end.

"CI is doing some things right now that might help us," Meyer said.

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