Candid Q and A with Coach Heater

As the Florida Gators look to recapture the dominance of the 1990s, it's the defense that is at the forefront. The Gators finished ninth in the nation in total defense last year, their first top 10 finish in three years. To play the style of defense that the Florida coaching staff wants, the corners have to be up to the task of aggressive man-to-man coverage.

The man in charge of the Florida cornerbacks, Coach Chuck Heater, put an aggressive unit on the field last year but this year he has the task of rebuilding a position that lost starters Dee Webb and Vernell Brown and key reserve Avery Atkins, who was penciled in as a starter for 2006. Losing Atkins has put the Florida secondary in a precarious situation. While Reggie Lewis is solid at one corner where he's expected to have an outstanding season, the other spot is up for grabs and there isn't much experience.

Heater, who came to Florida from Utah last year with Urban Meyer, knows his personnel quite well and by no means is he in a panic mode. When Gator Country talked to the veteran coach on Monday, he sounded eager to get on with the task of putting a quality unit on the field in 2006. Here is our question and answer session with Coach Chuck Heater:

BOB REDMAN: With the loss of Avery Atkins, what is your thought at the cornerback position with the players you have at your disposal going forward?

COACH HEATER: Reggie Nelson plays corner for us in certain packages so he definitely has the ability and is a possibility at the position. We have three freshmen also in the mix. We have to sort it out but we have to pull forward with where we are and try to solve the problems. But (Nelson and the freshmen) would be the first thought.

BR: In the spring you took Jemalle Cornelius off to the side and worked him a little bit at the position. Is Cornelius possibly an option at the position?

CH: Yes, he is a tremendous kid and very open to doing that. In our substitution packages it limits what we can do. He certainly showed that he could do that in the spring. He can do it and is willing to, so he is a possibility.

BR: How are you going to choose who lines up at the first team on the first day of two-a-days? Is it going to be the guy that works the hardest in the of-season?

CH: I don't think there is any way I can slice it or dice it. I don't think I will line up a freshman on the first team on the first day of practice. We will find a different way to solve that problem before the. That doesn't mean by the first game it won't change.

BR: How about the McCollum twins, Tremaine and Jermaine?

CH: Those are guys that are definite possibilities. They are here and have gotten a lot of coaching and a lot of work. For sure we are looking for someone to step up.

BR: What do you see in the potential of the freshmen?

CH: The three cornerbacks that are here are guys we wanted and recruited. They certainly have the skills. We have to be careful about throwing guys into the fire. Some guys handle it well and some guys don't handle it well. It's a long season and we hope we are still playing in January. We start in August and then by January it is a long time for someone to develop. At any time we may need someone to come through for [us]. How it starts may be much different than at the end of the season, but we definitely have to develop some players.

BR: How much of the position in this defense is mental and how much is physical?

CH: For our scheme it is more physically challenging than mentally challenging. That's to our advantage. We can get guys who have ability on the field quicker. If we are playing the man coverage it's not as complicated, I think it gives a younger player a chance to learn quicker.

BR: Can you draw on past experiences in losing a starter over the summer?

CH: Well, you can lose them in a lot of ways. You can lose them to academics or injury. You always have to be getting guys ready to go. Every place I have been we have never had the luxury of having a two deep. It has always been a process of getting guys to grow into a little bit of the unknown. We aren't too far from a year ago where Dee Webb was the only guy that played already. At some point in our program we need to get to the point where we have a number of guys returning every year. As a matter of fact we are only about one recruiting class away from that. I am not concerned, I have confidence in the players we recruited, I have confidence in the players we have, and I have a lot of experience in getting young players ready to play. I have done that many times.

I know I need about five corners. I like to have five guys that I can train and can help us in various ways. If we have five we can pretty much do the things we need to do on defense. I want five guys that can play football and will help us win games.

BR: How hard is for a freshman to step in and play?

CH: It's always about the players. If a player has the ability to play at that level, it is my job to make sure he plays at that level. If he's a talented young player, he will show it from day one. Some kids are more mature than others, but the talent and ability is huge for what we do and how we do it. If I have a guy that can run and flip his hips, I feel confident that we can teach him the rest. We will give him a fast learning curve to get him to go.

BR: In your last season at Utah, you had a freshman step up and play at an all conference level. How good did he play for you at Utah and what kind of tools did he possess?

CH: He was our best cornerback. He was our shutdown cornerback. We matched him with anyone. He had a phenomenal year and he played really well, I mean really well. He was a dominant player in that league that year. I don't know any limitations of what he can do. Obviously things didn't go well for him last year, but he was great for us. He is super quick, competitive, and tough.

THE REDMAN REACTION: I can go back to the very first spring practice under Coach Urban Meyer and this coaching staff and remember exactly what I thought of the defensive backs. I knew that first day they would be better coached and that they would play more physically than any corners the Gators had seen in quite some time.

I was part of the staff during the previous ten years so I saw a lot of football practice in my time there. Bob Stoops was the only defensive backs coach I can remember getting the players to play at the level this group started playing at from day one under Heater.

This defense, and namely Heater, require a lot physically from the cornerback position. As explained above, they take a lot of the mental game out of the position and require the players to play a physical game. If a player can compete physically he can get on the field very quickly.

For those reasons, I think the position will be solid for 2006.

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