Selecting the top five overall Florida players at this moment in time was a most daunting task. I could just as easily taken the top four picks, placed each of their names on an index card and taped them to a dart board. Follow that up by borrowing Lou Holtz' glasses, taking four shots and been perfectly happy with the results.
Thankfully it's not the top ten. Those notes are hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar at the bottom of Lake Alice. Anyway, here are my thoughts on who rates as the Gators top five players.
5. Chris Leak -- Chris Leak is the Most Important Player on the Florida offense. The Gators simply can't count on consistent production without him. Thankfully, he is also one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the conference. Leak has just one thing to do. Win a championship. He is much more comfortable in this offense. That has been evident at practice. Consider the weapons of choice (Baker, Caldwell, Ingram, Cornelius, Tookes, Casey, etc) and it's hard to see his not finally achieving the goal.
4. Reggie Nelson -- Reggie started only four games a year ago and he's already voted to the All-SEC Team. For goodness sakes, he didn't get his first start until the Georgia game. Is he really among the four best on this team? Yes. Look, Nelson is playmaker extraordinaire. He's been that way since he roamed the fields at Palm Bay High School. He kept everything in front of him at safety. His speed is underrated. When Nelson blitzed, he really pressured the quarterback finishing second on the squad in sacks. He can play anywhere in the secondary and probably give you some quality reps at weakside linebacker too. Expect a big year from Nelson and more.
3. Jarvis Moss -- Speed, Athleticism, Intensity, Grouping, and Size. Finally size. Yes, barely a year removed from weighing a shade more than most safeties- Moss stands a compact 6-6 255. And that wingspan alone will render more than a handful of SEC ballcarriers to the turf this season. Moss' run stopping ability has improved dramatically since adding the much needed weight. Last season, Moss finished fifth in the SEC in sacks (7.5) and never started a game. Furthermore, I asked Phil Trautwein and Drew Miller who in the SEC could block him consistently and they both laughed before admitting after what they've experienced- they seriously doubt it can be done. So what did I mean by grouping? Moss will benefit tremendously being surrounded by Thomas, RayMac, Cohen, Harris, Siler, and Everett.
2. Brandon Siler -- Siler has an incredible nose for the football. Seven fumbles recovered, tops in the SEC. A punishing tackler, Siler is solid in every facet of his game- run stopper, dropping back in coverage, and pressuring the quarterback. His leadership skills are duly noted. Siler is the epitome of taking the proper approach as a freshman- both on and off of the field. This could be his finest season, provided Thomas, Moss, Cohen, Harris, and Harvey stay healthy.
1. Marcus Thomas -- Thomas has improved each and every year. He manhandled many an offensive lineman last season and this season Thomas is getting off of the ball even better thanks to the loss of his little buddy, Scoop. His first step is unreal. His athleticism is absolutely tremendous for a guy that big. His vertical probably surprised a few in South Carolina when he blocked the point after. Thomas said that he wants to make a statement this year- personally and as a part of this program. Hand him the keys.
Most Improved… Joe Cohen -- Cohen had gained a lot of weight just after the completion of his senior season at Palm Bay High School. While interviewing the defensive end/running back and Reggie Nelson that spring at Palm Bay, I noted the additional bulk. I joked that he looked as though he might be on the career path for an offensive guard slot. Reggie and I laughed. But, Joe was only slightly amused, at best. Things didn't work out at running back for Cohen, and it appeared that he was pretty much destined to be a role player on the defensive front. However, he is moving as well as he has since his freshman season. Thus far, Cohen looks like a guy who will be a major contributor to an already loaded defensive front. He has really opened some eyes. I'm sorry that I called you an offensive guard Joe.
Six Best Players
6. Dallas Baker – He really belongs on the list too. Leaving Dallas off of my top five was really hard as was leaving last year's tackle leader Earl Everett. Baker is at a different level this fall. He seems to be able to go over or around any defender covering him, and should have a very good season for the Gators.
5. Jarvis Moss – His speed to the backfield is something I have never really witnessed from a guy as tall as Moss. He runs the fastest 10 yards on the entire team and he is just about unblockable up front. If he stays healthy, I really expect Moss to break the UF sack record this fall. He is some kind of special and would be higher on this list if he played more last year.
4. Brandon Siler – The true leader on the defense, he can play as well. The others ahead on this list have better physical tools at their positions, but Siler is probably as important as any of them. That isn't to say that Siler isn't a specimen. He certainly packs a punch on the ball carrier and knows where the ball is at all times as he shows with all of his fumble recoveries. I still think he could be the President some day.
3. Marcus Thomas – Most people when they start on defense, they want to start front and center for their best player. Marcus Thomas very well could be that. Nobody has a quicker first step at the position than Marcus Thomas. He should be more consistent and really loves playing under this staff and especially Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison.
2. Chris Leak – So much has been put on Leak from such a young age. He will hold several UF and SEC career records before he is done with his college career. He does almost everything he has been asked to do in this and the precious offense. He is the kind of player that the staff is willing to tweak their offense around. That says enough for me. Given a healthier and stronger supporting cast around him this season, I expect Leak to have a huge year for the Gators.
1. Reggie Nelson – "Reggie is a special football player. If someone asked ‘If you had to take a guy on defense, who would you take first'? My first pick would be Reggie Nelson because I just think he could play a bunch of positions for us." ---Co-Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong. Strong said it best and I agree with him completely. Nelson could play anywhere in the secondary, he could play linebacker, he could be an option quarterback, running back, or wide receiver and he could be about the best at any of those positions on the team.
Five Best Players, Period
There are 78 scholarship players at the University of Florida and ranking them in order would be… well, someone else's activity. But who are the best players on this team? This is a ranking based strictly on the ability of these players, regardless of need for the team, depth behind them or anything else. This is one man's view of the top five:
5. Dallas Baker ----- What a meteoric rise for him over the last two-plus seasons, huh? Baker caught 52 passes last year and will soon join UF's 100-catch club.
4. Reggie Nelson ----- It's now pretty clear that Nelson could start at any of the four positions in the secondary. He would probably do a decent job at weak side linebacker too. Nelson can cover, tackle and blitz and is one of those guys who simply MUST be on the field.
3. Chris Leak ----- It's so easy to harp on his shortcomings and discuss Leak in the context of this offense. It's also easy to forget that Leak ranks among the best quarterbacks in UF history in a number of categories including passing yards (4th), touchdowns (4th), efficiency (3rd), and completion percentage (3rd).
2. Brandon Siler ----- We get so caught up in talking about Siler's leadership we tend to forget his footballship. He's a fine player in the middle for the Gator defense with a great nose for the ball. With a stalwart defensive line in front of him he should have a huge season in '06.
1. Marcus Thomas ----- His belly may be called "Scoop" but his name will be called in the first round of next year's NFL draft. Thomas may be the best tackle in the SEC and one guy cannot control him. He also blocks kick for a hobby.
For what it's worth my next five would be Everett, Moss, Miller, Wilson and Cohen. I'm not considering McDonald or Caldwell because they are coming off injury.
Five Best Newcomers
It's more challenging trying to rank guys after just a handful of practices. Florida's newcomers certainly look good, better than last year's and the year before for that matter. This ranking is based on how impressive they were early on and how much I think they will contribute in year one.
5. Brandon Spikes ----- My understanding was he was too big to stay at linebacker for long. That's bunk! Spikes has excellent size, true but he also looks mostly grown and moves very well. Seems to be an instinctive player and will be on the two deep by opening day.
4. Jarred Fayson ----- Not only at this year's freshman ahead of where last year's group was to begin, I think they are ahead of them right now. Fayson runs good routes and battles to get open. And he might give Florida a chance to change things up by taking a few snaps at quarterback -- but just a few.
3. Brandon James ----- The mighty mite in the class of '06 James was viewed by most as strictly a kick returner but he looks pretty darn good in the backfield, too. James does a great job of getting on the hip of his lead blocker, making him a tough target to zero in on. I would probably consider him the most pleasant surprise of the class.
2. Dustin Doe ----- Doe showed the recruiting gurus he was underrated with a strong performance in the CaliFlorida Bowl game. He showed me he is a guy who can play right away. A natural linebacker who is fearless about throwing his body into the fray; Doe might play a good bit of defense and he should be on every coverage team.
1. Percy Harvin ----- The last time the Gators signed the top-rated receiver in the country he (Steve Shipp) was a monumental disappointment. Not the case this time. Harvin is as good as advertised and then some. By the end of the year only Dallas Baker and Bubba Caldwell will be more important receivers than this guy.
Each of these five guys should play significant roles this fall. I did not consider any of the four guys who had the advantage of taking part in spring practice.
There you have it, folks. Interestingly, no one garnered an unanimious #1 spot, but it clearly goes to show how much talent the Florida Gators have this year, with more on the way as Meyer and Co. continue to recruit and develop the best in the nation.
Photos by Tim Casey and Glenn Danforth