Meyer has Florida program loaded
Florida coach Urban Meyer has built one of the deepest programs at Florida
The Gators return 11 starters on defense, plus former Heisman winner Tim Tebow
Florida will undergo its most challenging offseason conditioning program yet
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The names didn't seem all that familiar, but Urban Meyer's vision became flesh Saturday at Florida Field. Jon Bostic? Dorian Munroe?
Never heard of two of the stars of Florida's spring scrimmage? You will. Or maybe you won't. It depends on how hard those players want to work. That's precisely what Meyer envisioned when he came to Florida from Utah in December 2004. He wanted to build a program so loaded to the gills with talent that his anonymous backups could secede, form their own team and still crack the top 25. Meyer had seen Bobby Bowden do it for a while at Florida State. He had seen Mack Brown do it at Texas. At the time, Pete Carroll was in the midst of doing it at USC.
Now, Meyer has done it.
"What did we envision? This is it," Meyer said Saturday. "This is where we wanted to be."
The Gators will bring back 17 starters from the team that manhandled Oklahoma three months ago in the BCS title game. We know Tim Tebow can throw and run. We know the Pouncey twins can block. We're pretty sure Brandon Spikes has the potential to drive his facemask through a ballcarrier's rib cage and out the other side.
That's why the play Bostic and Munroe combined on in Saturday's second quarter should scare the hell out of the rest of the SEC. Bostic is a freshman early enrollee middle linebacker from Wellington, Fla. Munroe is a fifth-year senior safety who would have started last season if not for a knee injury suffered during an offseason drill.
On that second-quarter play, Tebow -- the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and the 2008 second runner-up -- fired a rocket over the middle. Few teams in America have the athletes to disrupt such a pass, but the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Bostic leaped skyward and tipped the ball. Munroe switched directions from a full sprint, grabbed the ball and returned it deep into enemy territory.
Why should that play give the rest of the SEC nightmares? Because if all goes well for the Gators, Bostic and Munroe may never crack the starting lineup.
"It's extremely competitive," said Munroe, who will compete for playing time with incumbents Ahmad Black and Major Wright while trying to hold off a charge from freshman Dee Finley and sophomore Will Hill. "We're out there fighting for reps. We're fighting to go with the ones every day. It's a lot of competition, but we embrace it."
The scene Saturday was so different from the one two years ago, when the Gators -- also coming off a national title -- gave anyone with eligibility and a pulse a shot at a starting job on defense. Florida coaches had no other choice, and the growing pains of the 2007 season proved that.
Because of some minor dings and to avoid unnecessary risk of injury to established players, only a handful of the returning starters -- and none of the 11 defenders -- from last season played Saturday, but the ones who did provided a basis for comparison. That's what made it so impressive when backup defensive lineman Jaye Howard dragged down speedster Chris Rainey in the backfield or when sophomore offensive tackle Matt Patchan, who played defensive tackle as a freshman, sprinted 30 yards downfield to make one extra block for Rainey on a screen pass that gained 37. How loaded are the Gators? Even their incumbent kicker's job isn't safe. Senior Jonathan Phillips made 12 of 13 field goal attempts for the 2008 champs, but he probably broke into a sweat Saturday when sophomore Caleb Sturgis drilled a 54-yarder.
Don't forget redshirt sophomore quarterback John Brantley, whose guidance of the Orange team ensured Tebow -- the Blue quarterback -- will not go undefeated in The Swamp in 2009. Brantley, from nearby Ocala, Fla., originally planned to play for Texas, but he couldn't resist the lure of the school where his father (John) and uncle (Jeff) starred.
Brantley, who completed 12 of 18 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns, would start tomorrow at LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Auburn and Tennessee. He would at least compete for the job at Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Give him his own team, and Brantley probably would be the SEC's fourth best quarterback behind Tebow, Ole Miss starter Jevan Snead and Arkansas starter Ryan Mallett.
The Gators aren't perfect. They don't know if a go-to receiver will emerge from a group that includes sophomore Deonte Thompson, senior Riley Cooper and senior Carl Moore. But those players will have to produce, or a youngster such as Frankie Hammond (four catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns Saturday) or incoming freshman Andre Debose might push past them.
Still, Florida is as loaded a defending national champ as we've seen since USC's 2005 team. Of course, Meyer and his staff know what happened to that team. Anointed one of the greatest squads ever, the Trojans ran into a force of nature named Vince Young in the Rose Bowl and finished second. To combat any complacency, Meyer has ordered strength coach Mickey Marotti to design the most difficult offseason that Florida's ever had.
"If there's any resistance," Meyer said, "that guy's not going to play." Meyer didn't have the depth to make that statement in any of his previous four seasons at Florida, and the Gators still won two BCS titles. Now, he has the program he dreamed of creating.
Meyer knows it will be difficult to keep the Gators at this level. In recent years, only Carroll, Brown and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops have managed to avoid an occasional ebb. So he had to smile after Saturday's scrimmage when Tebow grabbed Brantley and taught him how to run a postgame victory lap around The Swamp. "He drug me out there," Brantley said. "He tells me I've got to do that when he's gone."
If Meyer and his staff can maintain the program as well as they've built it, Brantley will get plenty of experience.
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