Youthful Growing Pains

Torrential downpour and lightning aside, the Gators' season opener went about as scripted. Well, perhaps not the way Coach Urban Meyer wanted it to go, but about the way we figured it would.

Yes, the offense is explosive. For the better part of the game, Tim Tebow, Kestahn Moore, Riley Cooper and others imposed their will on the Western Kentucky defense, scoring whenever and however they pleased.

And yes, the defense showed it's youth, missing assignments and at times leaving the Hilltoppers' quarterback with ample time in the pocket. That's also expected when you have to replace nine defensive starters, seven of which were NFL draft picks.

Due to injuries, the Gators started two true freshmen: Joe Haden at cornerback and Maurkice Pouncey at offensive guard. That makes four total freshmen that have started the season opener under Meyer's tenure – an amazing statistic when you consider that only eight have done so in the team's history.

Haden was victimized on several plays early in the game, but went on to make a brilliant pass deflection in the end zone to save a tocuhdown.

"I looked up and thought ‘If he catches that I can't imagine what Coach Meyer and Coach Heater will say," Haden said. "If you slip on one play it can be a touchdown."

Haden also talked about his experience coming out of the tunnel into The Swamp.

"I was nervous," Haden said. "I told Cam [Newton] that my biggest fear was falling. It was a lot different."

Meyer was complimentary of Pouncey's performance, calling him one the best freshman offensive linemen he's ever seen.

"I stayed up late going over plays," Pouncey said. "I think I did good and just wanted to help out the team where I could."

This was the first game that Pouncey has ever played without his twin brother, Mike, playing alongside him. But the bonds he's built with his fellow linemen eased the transition.

"It was kinda weird," Pouncey said. " But my teammates feel like brothers to me now."

While defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Derrick Harvey were a constant presence in the Hilltopper backfield, the young group of defensive tackles struggled to hold their own inside.

"We just need to create some push," Meyer said. "We can do that with games, and obviously we're looking for the one to step up to get in the backfield."

The young offense also had its share of miscues, struggling to execute in the two-minute offense at the end of the first half.

The special teams play of Chris Rainey epitomized the Gator freshmen's performance. He displayed electric speed and change-of-direction on a 22-yard punt return, giving a glimpse of the playmaking jolt he's capable of. He also showed that he's capable of the mistakes that often plague inexperienced players, drawing a roughing the kicker penalty when attempting to block a punt.

"There were times we needed that game," Meyer said. " With the way that game started with all those young players, my goodness, great kickoff…we go down and I think three or four true freshmen started on kickoff and it's right there and they don't make a play. It comes out to the 28-yard line that should have been tackled on the 15."

This was a crucial game for the development of this young team. For a veteran-laden team like last year's, it might not have been. But for a young team it should prove a valuable learning experience – one that should pay dividends in weeks to come.

"I anticipate we'll be much better next week," Meyer said.

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