Preparing For Florida's Offense

How would you like to prepare for the nation best QB, a dominate RB, an elite WR, and an OL that is simply enormous, all in a new offensive scheme devised from two successful systems, that you have never seen before? Oh yeah, you get to play on the road, in what is the most hostile environment in college football, in the new coach's first game at the helm, with fan anticipation at or near an all-time high. Those are some cold, hard facts facing John Neal, UAB's new Defensive Coordinator.

John Neal got a big career boost in early July.  The UAB Secondary coach was elevated to the Blazers' Defensive Coordinator's position last Monday, replacing Rick Christopherel.  Neal now is in preparation for one of the biggest games of his life as UAB opens up their season on the road.  It is not your average opener.  UAB heads to Gainesville to try their hand in the dreaded Swamp, one of the toughest places to play in the country. They will also play in front of a very loud and raucous crowd in what will be new Head Coach Ron Zook's first game at the Gator helm.  This is no easy task for anyone.

How do you begin to prepare for a team like Florida?  They have the nation's best quarterback in Rex Grossman.  When healthy, Earnest Graham is as good as any back in the nation.  And when it is all said and done, Gator wide receiver Taylor Jacobs could be the best ever at that position at UF.  In addition, the Gator's offensive line is enormous, averaging 6-5.5 and 325 pounds across the board.

Now lets factor in the offensive scheme.  Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'N Gun" is gone.  What you will see is the evolution of two systems, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State's.  Ed Zaunbrecher, from Marshall, is now the Florida Offensive Coordinator while Larry Fedora (former offensive coordinator), from MTSU, is the Florida running backs coach and run game coordinator.  Try preparing to stop an offense that you have never seen before with the type of athletic personal that the Florida Gators have.

"It is a daunting task," said Neal in early July.  "I think to some degree it will be a guessing game.  Not only we will see the Marshall offense and the MTSU offense but you also have to factor in Ron Zook and his beliefs.  How much input will he have?  Combine all three of those things and it is very difficult to try and comprehend.  Marshall's offense, as well as MTSU's offense, are great offenses, just like Coach Spurrier's was.  We have to go back and break it all down.  But they are different and they clash and that is what makes it so hard to prepare for and it is something we have never seen."

In addition to the great unknown, UAB only returns two starters on defense, cornerbacks Dio Hill (Photo below vs. FSU last season) and Chris Brown (Photo above vs FSU last season).  They lost seven players to the NFL, including first round draft pick Bryan Thomas (N.Y. Jets) and second round selection Eddie Freeman (K.C.).  UAB may be a young team, but they are a team with talent.  UAB runs a 4-2-5 alignment.

"We are starting to develop a personality but what kind of personality is too early to tell," said UAB's new defensive boss.  "We lost nine starters and lots of athletes but we do have many players returning that have a lot of playing experience.  We have players returning that bring leadership.  Another big thing is that on the defensive side, we run well.  We are not a read and react scheme and we are not a big blitz team.  But we pick our spots and we try and penetrate and disrupt things."

One thing going for UAB is that they have played a few of the big boys in the past.  Last season, they took a road trip to Tallahassee and lost to Florida State 29-7.  In 2000, they upset LSU 13-10 in Baton Rouge, in one of the biggest wins in school history.

"Playing big games like Florida is just something we have to do.  We are a legit team and we are trying to gauge ourselves each year because we are a relatively new program.  It helps with recruiting both in how we go after the kids and it gets us publicity.  Economically, we need to make money too and this is a business."

Make no mistake about it, this is a daunting task for Neal and his defensive squad.  They face a talented Florida offense running a scheme they have never really seen.  They play in what is arguably the toughest environment in college football and in Coach Zook's first game as Florida's head coach.  But they have been there before and beaten a team like LSU on the road. 

"Our guys love the challenge and like to compete.  It is a big off-season motivator to us as well.  There are many reasons why playing a Florida is important to UAB.  We have to play at the highest level to even have a chance.  This will be a great barometer for us."

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