Miami Week - Defensive Deluge

As the Florida Gators prepare for the big rivalry game with the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday the questions still remain for some about the defense. Against Hawaii in the season opener, the defense played very well and flew around to the ball.

However, it was a very inexperienced Hawaii team and so the truth may not be known just yet on how good this Florida defense can be. One thing is for sure, they looked as good or better than at any time last season. Some defensive players and coaches talked about last week's game and the upcoming matchup with the University of Miami.

One of the stars on defense was sophomore safety Ahmad Black. A first year player at the position, Black led the team in tackles, had two interceptions, and ran one of them back for a touchdown. According to safeties coach and assistant defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, Black looks to have really made some strides early on this season.

"He has always been a guy that was a good tackler," Heater said of Black on Tuesday. "We have a lot of situations in practice where we tackle. Good defensive players make good tacklers. He has good balance and able to get in a position to make good tackles. That is something he has brought to the table."

Black seems to think some people may be changing their tune about what they think of him. At the same time, he isn't putting too much stock in a one game performance.

"I think I cleared some of the doubters right now," Black said. "But, as a unit we have to just take it one game at a time."

The doubters have been many and at times it has gotten on the minds of the secondary players. Black reiterated that what the fans saw Saturday is what they should see all season.

"It kind of irritated us but we went out there and made sure we worked hard and made sure everyone knew we were better," Black said about the constant criticism.

He knows it is a year long process and showing the fans in one game is one thing, proving it every week is entirely another.

"A lot of people have said we arrived but we haven't," Black said. "We have to work hard week in and week out to get where we want to be. Last week has come and gone and we have to focus on Miami this week. We have to take it one game at a time."

The lack of acknowledgment of the defense comes from the play of last season. Heater told his troops after the loss to Michigan in the Capitol One Bowl game that they "have nothing in the bank". Signifying they haven't anything to show yet for their careers just because they have played a little football.

"We didn't do much," Heater said. "There wasn't much success or much to draw upon. To me it was a matter of finding an edge and get back to work. What happens was we were in a place where guys were young and they had to play...win or lose guys get patted on the back to play. It doesn't really match up with what needs to get done now.

Heater wants to put the Hawaii game in proper perspective.

"It's only been one game against a team that is a revamped football team," he said. "On a positive side (the secondary) ran around..they caught the ball. Those are all positives. They could have dropped the ball, but those are all positives.

"It doesn't really matter what you did last week, it is a long season. Other players and other teams improve. Teams get better. We try and improve every week and that is the challenge. You take the positives and also a number of negatives and correct them. As long as they are listening and take coaching, we are moving in the right direction."

The defensive MVP of the game was sophomore cornerback Joe Haden. Haden finished tied for the team lead in tackles, had a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He seemed at times to be everywhere on the field.

"He has really taken it to another level, based on one game of course," Heater said of Haden. "He ran around...played very fast. He is an example of a guy that is growing and maturing.

"He is an athletic, strong physical guy. He showed the ability to make plays last year. Based on one game we got him in position where he had an opportunity to make a few more plays. The competition gets better every week and the true measure will come down the road."

All the great play from the secondary last week doesn't matter for much if they don't follow it up with another good game against Miami on Saturday. The rivalry and proximity of the two schools means more is at stake and Heater is very aware of that.

"The reality is it is Miami," Heater said. "We recruit the same guys and we know who those people are. We have an understanding and a knowledge of the team we are playing because they are the same players. They are talented and the same guys we didn't get, so that becomes a challenge. That is the challenge of the game."

................

For some of the Gators the big game this weekend means more than it does to others. Sophomore safety Major Wright played high school ball in Ft. Lauderdale and knows all about the Miami mystique. He was close enough to be drawn into the mystique when he was young, but made a decision to walk away from it when the time came to do so.

"Basically I grew up a Hurricane fan but felt in my heart that Florida was the best place for me," Wright said about his decision to sign a scholarship with the Gators. "It was pretty hard knowing I was going to be farther from home."

Closer to home is usually the deal breaker when it comes to south Florida prospects looking at Florida and Miami. The pull of the Hurricanes is too much to overcome.

"A lot of them down there grew up Miami fans and basically just went to Miami," Wright said.

One of his former teammates at St. Thomas Aquinas is a starter at safety for the Hurricanes. Anthony Reddick is a senior and leader for Miami and Wright has a lot of respect for his former mentor.

"When I first got to (Aquinas) he used to call me and help me out with plays because I would get lost," Wright said. We used to run gassers (together) and things like that. He is a great guy and helped me out a lot."

Wright is a huge fan of former Hurricane safety Sean Taylor and plays the game much like Taylor did. He knows that the level of play that reminds him of Taylor is also what he wants and expects form his team this week.

"Our practice is just intense," he said. "Everybody knows it is going to be an intense game so we are basically practicing off of that energy...because we know it is going to be a tough game...It is real important for this whole team to go out there and play great defense, offense, and special teams."

Don't try and get Wright started in a battle of words that will wind up on the bulletin board over in Miami. He wants to let his play do the talking and the rest will take care of itself.

"I am just going out there to play the game of football," he said.

.............................

Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has a great amount of respect for Miami head coach Randy Shannon. Only two years ago, both were coordinators in the state of Florida and now Shannon has moved up the ranks. Strong is probably not far off from doing the same, but admires the steps Shannon took to get where he is at.

"He has a great defensive mind and his relationship with players," Strong said of Shannon. "He worked through the system and stayed there and worked until he got the head coaching job."

Shannon is just one of the reasons that Florida finds it so hard to pull talented players out of south Florida to spend their college careers in Gainesville. Strong knows it is a hard sell.

"Just growing up around Miami, that is their whole life," Strong said of the local kids that bleed orange and green in their youth. "Plus Randy Shannon's relationship with all the coaches. He went to school with a lot of the guys in that area. Plus (the prospects) may look at it as six hours away (to Florida), when they could just go 20 minutes across the street (to Miami).

Strong believes that winning this game can do a little damage in the recruiting game, but it isn't all about who wins any particular rivalry game.

"If you beat Miami and Florida State, you do get a one up in recruiting," Strong said. "You can always say we beat Miami or Florida State. What you also have are guys that say they want to be a Gator or a Seminole or a Hurricane. But, a guy that is sitting there on the bubble and hasn't decided yet, maybe you can sway him."

The prospect visitor list for the game is a who's who from in-state prospects and is one that will likely grow before Saturday. Strong emphasized the fact that Florida uses that atmosphere to lure prospects to want to be Gators.

"A lot of guys come because it's a big game," Strong said. "All of our games we try and make them big. Plus it is an in-state game so we get a lot of guys from south Florida and central Florida."

Under Urban Meyer , Florida has always tried hard to recruit south Florida. The pickings have been slim lately as Miami has returned to a recruiting power, but Strong knows there is going to be a time when all of that changes.

"(Cornerback coach) Vance (Bedford) has that area now with (wide receiver coach) Billy Gonzales, and they are doing a great job," Strong said. "If you look at the early 90's we have had some guys that came out of the area. We had (Tim) Paulk, Godfrey Myles, Michael Kerr, (James and Del) Speer, McDonald Ferguson, Lawrence Wright. We have had some guys come out of the area but just lately we haven't gotten them."

Strong brings a defense into Saturday's match up that looked unquestionably better in game one against Hawaii than at almost any time last year. The experience level compared to last season is not even in the same plain.

"Them having a year of experience and just the pride," he said about his defensive unit. "We have preached since the Michigan game that the only way we are going to win is to play with great defense and they are going to have to play a lot better than they did last year."

This Miami game will be filled with excitement and pressure that a rivalry brings, but Strong expressed that his troops will keep their cool.

"The thing we have to do is just play with a lot of emotion," Strong said. "We know how to handle where it's not going to be a penalty. We will just congratulate each other and not say anything to them, that is how we can control it."

The talk this week has been about speed, but Strong knows he has a lot of speed he coaches every day as well. Certainly Miami brings a lot to the table, but don't down play the physical ability of the Florida defense.

"We have fast players also," Strong said in response to a question about handling Miami's speed. " You always worry about other people's speed but we feel like we can run with them also."

.............................

Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney has his hands full this week when his line will be going up against maybe the biggest offensive line they will face all season. With a good amount of experience and talent also on hand, McCarney knows his guys need to be ready.

"It may be the biggest offensive line we will see period," McCarney said. "They have size, they have height, they have girth, they have long arms. I have watched plenty of tape on them and you can sure see the improvement with a veteran offensive line coming back. They have a good plan in what they are doing. They have tremendous backs and young talented quarterbacks.

"We know how important it is in college football to win the battle of the trenches. The first thing I put on the board when I went into the meetings is that we had to be the most physical defensive line Florida has had in a long time to win this game."

According to McCarney the Miami offensive line is solid across the board.

"There is not anyone in there playing like two's or playing like back ups," he said. "They are all strong and all tough. There are guys that have been in the program. All three of those starters have started a bunch of games. Shannon the transfer from Florida International started 12 games at FIU. There is experience at every position, there are no rookies out there. We know how hungry they are going to be coming into this stadium."

McCarney was really pleased with the effort his line gave in the game against Hawaii. He saw the starters excel and the back ups get excellent playing time to learn from.

"I think real solid over all," he said about the play of his line. "We played 12 guys, had one mental error, zero loafs, six turnovers, two defensive scores, five sacks. It was a good start but the competition is going to get a lot better immediately. Any time you play 12 guys in one game and nine of them played early in the game we got some good experience and hopefully some depth building for the rest of the season."

The stars up front were junior defensive end Jermaine Cunningham and sophomore nose tackle Lawrence Marsh. Both have had excellent fall camps.

"Cunningham and Marsh were the two best," McCarney said about Saturday's game. "They did the best on the performance chart. Cunningham had a sack and a half, a forced fumble, some pressures. Marsh had two sacks and played relentless football. That is how they looked in practice, and they went and played that way. Three of the four started their first games, five or six guys played for the first time in their careers. We took control of that game after they did some things early and I thought our number ones really played outstanding."

One of his pupils has extremely strong ties to the game this week. Freshman defensive tackle Matt Patchan's father and uncle both played for Miami. The battle to land him on signing day was a big one. McCarney loves everything that Patchan brings to the table.

"Tremendous attitude...relentless effort all the time," McCarney said of Patchan. "He has a great passion for the game, never satisfied, wants to be good, wants to be coached. He is unselfish. If we can bring in four Matt Patchans in every year I promise you we will be playing for national championships. I love him. He played 25 snaps on Saturday and will play more this week. He will continue to bring more to the defense because of his relentless effort."

Looking at the game, one of the key aspects could be to rattle the young quarterbacks that Miami will be playing. A true freshman in Jacorri Harris and redshirt freshman in Robert Marve should take all the snaps and McCarney knows that is a big sub plot for the whole game.

"They are very talented young men and those two kids could have gone anywhere in college football," McCarney said. " Of course you would rather face guys with less experience (like this). We know the talent those guys have and when you are in the state of Florida you are coaching against some of the best talent in the country. What an unbelievable tradition they have. This is my first time coaching against Miami and I am looking forward to it."


Fightin Gators Top Stories