While the team has gone through more than its fair share of bumps and bruises, it should start the season next week with only two missing players. Offensive lineman Ronnie Wilson will be out for 2-4 weeks while linebacker Jon Demps will miss the entire season. Even so, the hitting has continued at a hot and heavy pace at practices.
In Meyer's eyes, he sees a tougher team out there this year compared to last year. "I think so," he said about the Gators being tougher. "I'll tell you as we start, but I really think we are. That is going to be a key to the season."
The much maligned offensive line was hit hardest with injuries, with as many as five offensive linemen absent from practices in a two day period. Now, with just a week from the Southern Mississippi game, it appears the line is healing quickly.
"It's all positive," Meyer said. "(Phil) Trautwein's foot, he practiced and we fixed him up with some orthotics and Mo Hurt practiced some today. Trautwein had a stress reaction in his foot which means it wasn't a fracture. Wilson had a fracture and had to have surgery to fix it. Orthotics is a way to fit a shoe to take the pressure off of areas of the foot."
This group of offensive linemen possesses a trait that has been missing in years prior at Florida -- the ability to mash people up front. They're getting what the coaches want them to do and they're not being forced to do something they're not capable of handling. Two of the true freshmen have really impressed so far, according to Coach Meyer.
"(Mo Hurt) will play in the first game, I really believe he will play in the first game," Meyer said. "Another guy that has come on and we rested him because he had an over extended elbow, is Marcus Gilbert. He is the best lineman in the (true freshman) class. He has a lot of talent. I thought he was really good. This kid is much better than I thought he would be and he is going to be a premiere player for us. He moved to guard when Ronnie went down, but he started out at tackle."
Even with the young guns coming on strong, Meyer isn't ready to push Drew Miller back to offensive tackle after he was moved to guard when Wilson went down. Meyer emphasizes the need for guys with tough, mean streaks to be crushers on the inside of the line. With Miller as the best tackle on the team, he will use the older guys outside for now and use Miller's mean streak inside until Ronnie Wilson returns.
"Miller ultimately is a tackle, he looked like a million dollars (outside) but we had to move him inside," Meyer said. "When we get Maurice and Gilbert and Ronnie Wilson back, he is going to go right back out."
Former Gator basketball star and current NBA champion Udonis Haslem was at practice today and gave a speech afterwards. Meyer appreciated his presence and knows what a good Gator he is for the University of Florida.
"He's a Gator," Meyer started. "I've got a phone call in to Coach Riley asking if he can play for us. He isn't calling me back for some reason."
"(Haslem) said they went through some adversity. They got beat pretty good early in the year by Dallas and had some fighting going on in the locker room. Great teams fight through adversity, so it was a great message."
There is no quarterback controversy at Florida, but Meyer knows getting playing time for his true freshman back-up is a necessity. Tim Tebow will see his first playing time as a Gator a week from Saturday.
"He will play," Meyer said. "We would like to get him in as early as possible. We haven't set an exact time or play. We haven't finalized that yet, but we will probably finalize that on Sunday."
His playing style will not dictate when he gets in the game. It's common knowledge that the Meyer offense isn't ideally suited for Chris Leak. However, Meyer has been pretty consistent in saying that Leak is the quarterback of the team and that the offense has been tailored to his abilities. They aren't going to insert Tebow to make defenses think about a different dimension in the offense just yet.
"Not really a change of pace, we just need to get him ready to play as the back up quarterback," Meyer stated. "He doesn't have the knowledge that Chris has. Chris has a year in the system. We are going to pick some plays he can work with. He is a gorilla playing quarterback. We are trying to make him into a quarterback. He wants it bad. Chris has been very good for him."
The toughness on the team that Meyer wants to instill has to start with the defense and the Gators should see plenty of tough play from a unit that returns a lot of muscle up front. The Gator defense was stingy to say the least last year and looks to be improved. Meyer said Friday with Reggie Nelson starting at free safety, which means Tony Joiner would start at strong safety. Kyle Jackson will see plenty of time, but in a regular defense he will not start.
The defensive line had its moments of being injured this fall, but they are a healthy bunch right now. One of the toughest characters on the line is junior defensive tackle Clint McMillan who has spent some time in a boot this fall.
"Clint McMillan is doing (well)," Meyer said. "He had his knee drained a couple of days ago. He's a tough nut. He is one of our elite guys. He is a main guy on punt, he is on kickoff return, and he is even on goal line offense."
Meyer sees steady improvement from the freshmen defensive linebackers, but not enough to push the starters. Meyer believes the Gators will have a quality three-some starting at linebacker this season.
"Just continued improvement and they are learning under the three," said Meyer on the freshmen linebackers. On top of that, he sang the praises of Crum: "You know, I am really impressed with (senior Brian Crum). We have challenged Crum and he has come on. That is really the way it is supposed to be. Three younger guys under the three older guys and they are doing a really good job, they have a long way to go but that is the way it supposed to come."
Perhaps the most dynamic player on the team is free safety / cornerback Reggie Nelson. Add punt returner to his duties. The fleet footed athlete is going to start the season as the Gators' punt returner and that was the plan even before the injury to freshman Brandon James.
"He would have been anyways," Meyer said of Nelson returning punts. "Percy (Harvin), Jamelle (Cornelius), or Bubba (Caldwell) will be next, so we have some guys. Percy and Jemalle are the top two candidates at kick returner."
The Gators 2006 freshman class has been outstanding as a group at practice. Meyer thinks that this is a special group and will help lay a foundation for the future with their attitude and work ethic.
"The best thing about these freshmen, it is a really good class," he said. "Last year's class came in with a chip on their shoulder and thought they expected things they didn't deserve. This class came in and said we are going to work. We were very clear when we recruited them there was no promises made. They will get a chance to play in the finest stadium in college football, now go earn it. They have done a good job of doing that. They are a really good class and good people."
Meyer and company are expecting over 150 former players and 300 total guests at the second annual alumni cookout on campus this weekend.