2006 College Football Preview: UF
Get Ready Gator Fans!
Gators Anxious to Climb ‘Year Two’ LadderUrban Meyer’s Gators look to future successes
By Marty Cohen
With a new coach in place and the excitement level at an all-time high, University of Florida football fans didn’t know what to expect in Urban Meyer’s first year at the helm in 2005. Certainly a fast 4-0 start whetted the appetite, but two tough midseason road losses at Alabama and LSU sent hopes crashing, only to be revived by a strong finish featuring victories over Florida State and then Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
In the end, the Gators concluded the year with a 9-3 record and a final ranking of No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, the highest season-ending ranking since 2001. Along the way, the 2005 Gators became the first team in school history to defeat its three top rivals – Georgia, Tennessee and FSU – and win a bowl game in the same season.
While there was certainly plenty to feel positive about, including landing one of the nation’s top-rated recruiting classes in February, there was a feeling of unfinished business – that the Gators left something on the table. With an opportunity to win their first Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title since 2000, they fell flat on the road again, losing to South Carolina and ex-Gator coach/legend Steve Spurrier.
While the anticipated learning curve in the first year of the Meyer Era produced some dizzying highs and numbing lows, the expectations in Year Two have hardly diminished. At both of his previous head-coaching stops, Bowling Green and Utah, his teams showed dramatic improvement in the second year, including an eye-catching 12-0 campaign at Utah in 2004.
While most are forecasting UF’s revival to take another step, Meyer himself has not turned down the volume. In fact, near the end of a productive spring practice session last April, Meyer let the world know how fired up he is for the upcoming fall.
“I’m jacked,” he said after the team’s last full practice before the spring game. “I spoke somewhere (recently) and they said, ‘Coach, what’s your goal?’ I said our goal was to become a great team. It’s well documented we’re not, but we’re not panicking because there are not many great teams. There are a bunch of teams that win, but a great team is unselfish and truly committed to one another. It’s one heartbeat.
“We’re not there, but we’re as close as we’ve been since I spoke to these guys in December a year ago.”
Character, camaraderie, leadership – all of those off-field issues are paramount to success in Meyer’s program. But there has to be some talent to go along with those intangibles, and the 2006 Gators will bring plenty of ammunition to the battle this season.
Offensively, quarterback Chris Leak returns for his senior season. Leak, who has started the past 33 games for UF, is poised to become the school’s all-time leading passer this season. He appears more comfortable in his second season operating Meyer’s and
offensive coordinator Dan Mullen’s offense.
“It’s not just me, it’s the other guys,” Leak said. “All of us are in our second year of having the same offensive coordinator. Everybody is on the same page. Your quarterback can be on it, but if the other guys aren’t on the same page, it does no good.”
Missing from Leak’s gaudy college resume is a championship, and he knows this is his last opportunity to secure a ring. For the first time in his career, he will be pushed, as ballyhooed freshman Tim Tebow enrolled last January and wowed fans with an impressive spring-game performance.
While Tebow is the quarterback of the future and will get force-fed some action this fall, this is Leak’s offense – in effect, Leak’s team.“
There’s not a quarterback controversy in-house,” Meyer said. “For Gator fans and college football fans, that’s a great water-cooler story in the morning. Chris Leak’s our quarterback, and Tim Tebow’s going to play.
“Chris Leak had a great spring. I think he knows he’s going to take it to the next level.”
For Leak to ascend to a higher plane, his supporting cast will have to improve as well. The Gators struggled with their running game last season, averaging 146.8 yards a game as no running back stepped forward to claim the top spot. The focus again will be on the tailbacks, as the returning trio of senior DeShawn Wynn and sophomores Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore, along with incoming freshman Mon Williams, will look to add a spark to the offense. The tailbacks contributed just six runs longer than 20 yards last season.
For the running game to take off and the entire offense to succeed, a rebuilt offensive line will have to grow up in a hurry. Gone are four senior starters, with untested true juniors Drew Miller and Phil Trautwein taking over at the key tackle spots.
Nevertheless, Leak still will have plenty of weapons to rely on in the passing attack. Despite the loss of leading receiver Chad Jackson, a second-round pick of the New England Patriots, seniors Dallas Baker (the Outback Bowl MVP) and Jemalle Cornelius, along with junior Andre Caldwell, who is returning from a broken leg, form a potent nucleus.
“There’s a giant foundation offensively at a lot of different positions,” Mullen said. “Take quarterback. This spring, Chris Leak didn’t go in trying to learn an offense. He went in trying to apply the offense on how to beat a defense, and there’s a big difference between those two things. When you get to that point, that’s when you start to see the production.
“The same with all the receivers. You didn’t break the huddle and wonder if you were in the right place or lining up in the right place. They already know exactly what they have. It’s true for every position. Once you have that foundation, you start to see better execution.”
More is expected on the defensive side as well, with a wealth of experience returning – especially in the front seven – to a unit that finished ninth in the nation (299.8 yards per game) in total defense. Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas is back, shunning the opportunity to leave early for the NFL, and looks to anchor what should be an outstanding defensive line. Junior defensive end Jarvis Moss, who registered a team-high 7.5 sacks in limited action last season, is on the verge of a breakout year.
The defense was an opportunistic bunch last season, as UF finished plus-18 in turnover margin, good for third in the nation. Junior middle linebacker Brandon Siler, with an SEC-high seven fumble recoveries last season, is an All-America candidate, the unquestioned leader of what should be a top-notch unit. The lone area of concern is an inexperienced secondary that
must replace three starters from last season.
“We can be the anchor for this team, just like we were last year,” junior safety Tony Joiner said. “We can be this year also. But the offense is going to be pretty damn good too.”
If UF is to climb to the next level and win its first SEC championship since 2000, it will have to become a more proficient team away from The Swamp. The Gators went undefeated at home (6-0) last year, one of only eight teams to accomplish that feat, but lost badly in three of their four true road games.
“We always have high expectations here – that’s part of the territory,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “We have to do it. Because of the experience coming back, we have high expectations, no question. Whether we do it or not, that’s a discussion for January. It’s up to the coaches, it’s up to the players, it’s up to everybody together to make sure we’re as good as we can be. We’re excited to get going, to see how good these kids can get.”
A demanding schedule, featuring road games at Tennessee, Auburn and FSU, plus home games with LSU, Alabama and South Carolina and the annual showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville, will make that Year Two jump experienced by previous Meyer teams a daunting task. But the head coach does not hide his enthusiasm for the upcoming campaign, which will celebrate the 100th year of Florida football.
“You have to build a program,” he said. “It might take a couple of years. It might take next year. We don’t know, but we will not play you if you have a bad attitude, and we won’t recruit you if you have a bad attitude.
“I’m really excited to be at this point in Year Two.”
Marty Cohen is the general manager and editor of Gator Bait magazine, publisher of GatorBait.net, and co-host of a weekly TV show, “Gator Beat,” on WUFT Channel 5 in Gainesville.