Meyer Still Looking For A Few Good Men

A year ago at this time Urban Meyer must have felt like a Marine drill sergeant. He had put the Florida Gators through what was probably the roughest, toughest offseason in school history and he still was looking for a few good men. It's a year later and still two weeks until spring football practice starts and even though he knows a whole lot more about his team than he did last March, he's still looking for a few good men, especially at tailback.

The Gators will begin spring practice with three veteran tailbacks --- rising senior DeShawn Wynn and a pair of rising sophomores, Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore --- all of whom had some outstanding moments in 2005. That's the good news. The bad news is all three of them were plagued by inconsistency. Wynn played through injuries and that may have impeded his progress. Manson and Moore were playing for the first time and for every brilliant effort, they had a freshman moment.

It's enough to drive a coach crazy.

"Fred Taylor and Emmitt Smith played tailback here … I keep checking that. It did happen, right?" Meyer asked with a touch of sarcasm at his pre-spring press conference Tuesday morning. He said more than once that the Smith and Taylor standard is one that should be the mark every tailback strives for at Florida but right now seeing the mark and hitting the mark are two different things.

"There has to be a standard set," Meyer said. "I thought C4 (Ciatrick Fason, tailback 2004) did a heckuva job. I thought he was one helluva player. Right now we don't have a standard. We don't have that. It has to happen or we will play without a tailback."

While Meyer saw significant strides made in a lot of ways in his first season as Florida's coach, he didn't see the consistency he needed at the position, one of the reasons his spread option offense sputtered when it came to the ground game most of the year. It was tailback by committee, not because he had three outstanding players each deserving playing time but because he was searching for one of his three tailbacks to give the team a spark.

With the Meyer offense, the running game should explode when the field is spread with three and four wide receivers but Florida's longest run of the season was 50 yards and that wasn't against an SEC opponent.

"That's maybe the most disappointing position on our team," he said. "Florida has a nice tradition of great running backs here but we're not fulfilling our obligation of that great position. We're very poor at the tailback position.

"I've been around football for 21 years and we've always had a back we could count on and we didn't have one. We're starting from scratch at that position. Kestahn Moore was our starting tailback that's the way it will start in the spring. Nothing happened in the offseason to dethrone that position. That is not what is expected and if it continues we'll play without a tailback. I won't watch that trash I saw last year."

Meyer will put the pressure on the tailbacks to perform this spring, particularly since he's bringing in three very talented freshmen, all of whom have outstanding speed. One of the freshmen --- Chevon Walker --- is already enrolled in classes and he will participate in spring drills. He has sprinter's speed and produced more than 2000 rushing yards at Fort Myers Riverdale. In the fall, he'll be joined by Mon Williams of Mesquite, Texas, who is expected to show up in August near 215 pounds, and Brandon James of St. Augustine, a water bug, make you miss type that reminds folks of Warrick Dunn.

The tailback position isn't the only area of concern for the Gators this spring. There will be only five healthy linebackers for certain in the spring since it's uncertain how fast Jon Demps will adjust to contact coming off ACL surgery. At cornerback, there are two veterans but neither one started until there were injuries late in the season. On the offensive line, four senior starters were lost.

On the offensive line, Drew Miller will move over to tackle to make room for redshirt freshman Ronnie Wilson at guard. That's the biggest move that's been made. The goal this spring is to find the five best offensive linemen and when the spring starts the five that will have the first shot are center Steven Rissler (moved over from guard, backed up Mike Degory at center last year), Wilson and Jim Tartt at the guards, and Miller and Phil Trautwein at the tackles.

"We're trying to get our best five on the field and Drew Miller has had a terrific offseason," said Meyer. "He's one of our best five. We have very clear body types. At guard you want the powerful benders and at tackle you want the rangy athletic guys and Drew's right in the middle of that."

Redshirt freshman Eddie Haupt, who had back surgery last year, has come back from the injury nicely and he will factor in the spring along with Wilson. True freshmen Carl Johnson and Maurice Hurt will be in this spring and they're both coming along although both have to continue to drop some tonnage.

"Ronnie Wilson has earned a starting spot as of now with his work ethic and ability level," said Meyer. "He's a talented guy. Eddie Haupt is close. He had back surgery and he's coming back really well. Those kids will both play for us. I anticipate Ronnie to start and Eddie to battle for a starting spot. Both of those guys are doing really well. Carl's got a long way to go but he's a very talented guy and Maurice Hurt is doing a really good job. They're just out of shape. They have to get in shape."

At linebacker, Demps will be brought along carefully in the spring. The Gators will start the spring with Brandon Siler in the middle, Earl Everett on the weak side and Brian Crum, a reserve last year, at the strong side. Crum played well against Georgia and Florida State in some extended action but he didn't have a consistent season. He is being counted on to step it up and become a consistent player this spring.

"He's another guy who's been here quite a while and he does a good job of getting Gator sweats, Gator gear, Gator tennis shoes," said Meyer. "It's time he helps us out. He's a good kid. He will help us out."

Meyer said that redshirt freshman Ryan Stamper will be counted on to make a move in the spring and if Demps is healthy, he'll be working out at the strong side position.

In the secondary, there are question marks with starters Vernell Brown and Dee Webb gone. Reggie Lewis and Avery Atkins got plenty of playing time at the end of the year when Brown went down with an injury but beyond those two, there are far more questions than there are answers.

"Reggie Lewis and Avery Atkins are the returning players at corner," Meyer said. "They're both talented guys. Reggie made great strides, and Avery has a lot of talent. Behind them we have a little problem. We signed three freshmen cornerbacks, but in the program there's not another guy who's stepped in. Tremaine McCollum has played a little bit on special teams but it's time he earned his scholarship and said let's be a Gator and help this team win because he's got some ability."

Other comments from Meyer about the team prior to spring drills:

ENTERING THE SPRING: "We're very excited about year two. Year one was an educational experience for everyone involved with our program most importantly our coaches. We're really anxious to get going and are really excited about our off-season. The way we're attacking it, the approach, we're really excited.

"We did not achieve our goal of a championship, but there were some very positive things that occurred last year. The way we finished has really spring boarded us into an excellent recruiting season and off-season. The second quarter of the Champions Awards is spring practice. That starts at the end of March and we're really anxious to get things going.

"There were some difficult games. We had three bumps in the road where could have been more. There were a handful of seniors that did a terrific job of keeping this thing going. Our staff is indebted to these young guys and I want to make sure we never forget them. The first one is JM who deserves a great opportunity in the NFL. He is a great representative of Florida football and the UF. The second one is Jarvis Herring. Jarvis did a phenomenal job for us. To think that he wasn't an All-Conference safety is a mistake by the SEC. I don't know if the media is aware of that but nobody ever asked me who I thought should be All-SEC. We're not allowed to vote for our players or to discuss it. Jarvis Herring was a terrific player for us and a better leader. The guy that's tired of me saying it but the face of Florida football, Vernell Brown, he's a guy who did everything and above what we asked. Those guys did a great job of keeping the team together and finishing strong the way we did.

"We're real excited about year two. Our players are very excited as well. We have a lot of unfinished business. We have a lot of new blood that we're anxious to see them play. There is a standard, a work ethic set that was not there a year ago that was not set. We took too many things for granted."

CHAD JACKSON'S NFL DECISION: "Chad Jackson is doing a great job. I wasn't sure that he should take that next step to the National Football League, but he made the right decision. I was awful upset when I heard some conversations about the NFL. I heard some comments like 'Coach doesn't like the NFL.' That's not true at all. I have great respect for the NFL, and I have great respect for young people that want to make a living. I don't want that discussion in October when we're getting ready to play an SEC game. From that point on, our players will never be allowed to discuss (the NFL) until after the season. The point I am trying to make was that I didn't want players discussing it during the season. I wasn't trying to limit anybody's opportunity to earn a living.

"Chad Jackson made the right decision by coming out. All indications are that he will be a first round draft pick because of his lifestyle, because of the way he performed well on the field and his great talent. He's representing the University of Florida the right way. well at the combines. He's a super young guy. I'm proud of Chad."

INJURY UPDATE: "Andre Caldwell is doing well. He will not be a full-contact guy this spring. He broke his femur against Tennessee. That was a very expensive victory. He's doing well, but just not quite full strength in that leg.

"Ray McDonald had two ACL surgeries but he should be ready to go in June, running full speed. There is a chance that Jon Demps will be ready for some contact, but we just have to be careful with him. He had ACL surgery as well. Reggie Nelson is close, but he's still a little gimpy. He missed the bowl game with an MCL injury. Everyone else is ready."

FUNDAMENTAL IMPROVEMENT: "Fundamentally, especially on offense, I thought we were very poor. We took too many things for granted which is something we've taken great pride in the past. I'm really disappointed because fundamentally I thought we were poor. Football position is something that is overlooked and I don't believe very well taught. Great teams, championship teams have two things in common … obviously great players and fundamentally sound. We were very good in ball security and that is a part of fundamentals. On defense, I thought we tackled very well and that's a part of fundamentals. On offense, football position and blocking, we were not good blockers. That's not limited to the offensive line but our perimeter blocking was very average. Every ounce of offseason has been spent on football position, on football-specific drills and getting in position to make blocks."

TEAM BUILDING: "Stadiums change and jerseys get a little nicer and everything changes a little bit but what doesn't change is how you win games. Great chemistry, great discipline and accountability to each other are all ways you win and you have to be a tough group. There's never been a championship team that didn't have those qualities. That's not going to change. We were not a very good football team last year. We were a team that had some good players, had some great players, but we certainly were not a great team. I wouldn't even put as a good team during the year. At the end of the season, after that last game, I think it was getting pretty close … I wouldn't say great, but the last two games the University of Florida looked like a very good team and that certainly wasn't the case in the middle of the season."

CHRIS LEAK/QUARTERBACKS: "The quarterback has to make plays. A lot of those plays have to be made with their feet. Some people are natural, some people are unnatural. I think Chris Leak received a lot of criticism along with the coaching staff and a lot of it had to do with other areas of the offense, breakdowns, but not necessarily the quarterback. I think everybody had a share in not being very productive.

"We are going to run some option football. That will never change. How much depends on how good we are at it but if you take away the option, that opens the whole package of defenses that you see. We will run some option and (Leak) will have to improve as a runner at quarterback. I think in the second half of the season he did a really nice job out on the edge. We're going to compliment the offense with what we do well. Tim Tebow will play next year, however, Chris Leak is the quarterback at the University of Florida. Tim Tebow's going to play not because he's Tim Tebow but because you have to have your backup ready to play. Playing time will be earned. Nothing given but he will play."

CHANGING PLACES: "Darryl Gresham came in as a linebacker, but he's up over 250 pounds, so he'll play at defensive end. John Curtis is a walk-on wide receiver that really did a good job during drills last year before he had ACL surgery during two-a-days. We've moved him to safety. "

TEBOW FACTOR: "There is no adjustment. He came right in like he's been a Gator for a long time. He's earned a lot of respect with his work ethic and his toughness and that's all in mat drills and the rest of off-season programs. We have to watch him, though. He likes to lift weights with linebackers and defensive tackles. I think that's kind of neat for a little while until you see up to 242 pounds. We had to back him up a little to get him back to 229. We're trying to keep him as close as possible to 230."

GUN INCIDENT DISCIPLINE: "We handled it in house. I was very disappointed. I'm not going to get into what actually happened. The real positive was the parents involved had the same reaction that our coaching staff and administration had and that was one of we were very disappointed and it shall never happen again. If the parents took another action as if it's the university's fault or they're looking at me why am I upset then there would have been some drastic action. That didn't happen at all. I'm very pleased with the approach the parents took. You're allowed one mistake and that's a major mistake. There was some in-house action taken and was very serious. I'm very disappointed that happened."

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: "What I'm really anxious to do is become a football team and that hasn't happened. I thought that would have happened by now. It was close during that bowl week preparation and that's all we're talking about. I love it when I get to visit with Coach Bellichik. He's here. We're talking with all the elite programs, all the elite teams right now. West Virginia came here for two days. West Virginia's a great team the way they do things. I'm anxious to get to that. There comes a point when either you either subscribe or you gotta move on. You either have to become a team player or you move because at some point, you're going to hurt the team anyway. The train's moving real fast. A year ago this time the train was putting along because we had no idea what we had. I know it now and the coaching staff is very clear, the players are very clear what's expected. There will be guys that a lot of people will say, 'Why is he not playing?' Well, he's not playing because he's not good enough and he's not playing team football. Teams win championships, not some of those outfits with good players but teams win and that's our goal."

SAFETY FIRST: "Reggie (Nelson) should be full speed for spring. He'll be one of the safeties. He played very well last year. The other safeties haven't played very well. Kyle Jackson and Tony Joiner are two people who have worked hard and hopefully they will improve. They have to improve to play. That's a clear message we have to get to our team as well with all the buildup of Florida football players. Why isn't so and so playing? Because so and so has to get better. That's why he's not playing. I think once a young guy gets it through his mind that the coaches don't like those dog ate my homework excuses don't cut it anymore because you have to improve to play. I think we've got that point across and I'm anxious to watch them improve."

BAKER, LATSKO AND LEADERSHIP: "Dallas Baker has earned the right to be captain … the team will be in charge of voting for captains but Dallas is going to be a team captain if he continues doing what he's doing. His work ethic and his leadership have come a long way. This time last year, he could tell a good joke but he wasn't good at much else including academics. But now I'm so proud of this guy. I love Dallas Baker. He comes from a great family, and he'll be a great leader.

"Billy Latsko this time last year was a third string will linebacker and he'll be a captain as well. Our palyers are going to vote for them but those two spots are taken. Brandon Siler is a great leader as well and Jemalle Cornelius is coming on. Quarterback, Chris Leak has to keep continuing, he has to … the quarterback has to be a leader … he has no choice. Those are just some of the guys that have to step up."

TIME TO STEP IT UP: "It usually takes about three semesters to figure out if someone will contribute to your program. You come in your first fall, you have to be exceptional or something has to happen because you're usually not ready to play as a freshman. The second semester, you learn the program, you learn work ethic and you learn that staying out until two in the morning is not the best way to become a better football player. And then by the third semester, if by fall semester you're not a player … some people say you can't teach a dog to bite after awhile … I believe in that. I went the last 20 years in coaching … you have an idea. There are some guys in this program right now that are beyond that.

I think Derrick Harvey has taken that step. He's a guy that's a talented young man, he's a good guy, he plays well, he's really working hard this offseason. I'm anxious to watch him go. Off the top of my head, I put Drew Miller, Steve Rissler, Jim Tartt and Phil Trautwein in that category. Those guys have been, eating well and getting a great education and now it's time to perform. The good thing is they are. They're having a great offseason. I think Jemalle Cornelius has always been that next guy. We always talk about Bubba Caldwell and Dallas Baker but Jemalle Cornelius made those two great catches against FSU. I'm anxious to watch him take that next step. Tailback? I don't know what's going to happen at that position. I'm really disappointed. I want to see someone step up and become a real football player. Those are a few of the things… Jarvis Moss is on the verge of being not a good player but a great player. He's up to 252 pounds right now. Last year he was 216 and really didn't look right. He's really working hard. "

DESHAWN WYNN: "I've been hearing about that Miami game for a long time. I have to go watch that game. It must have been a heckuva game I guess. We lost it but it must have been a nice run. He's as close as he's ever been but like any other position you have to earn your spot to play and that hasn't happened."


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