“Enjoy the road,” the text message read. “Your son has grown up to be a man.”
The maturation of John Brantley came on the field as a passer and off the field as a leader. In the huddle, the redshirt junior learned to command the attention of his teammates.
There was a worry about Brantley’s ability to lead vocally. His quiet demeanor was a counter from the heart on his sleeve mentality that Tim Tebow led with. Such a strong difference isn’t always a bad thing.
“What he’s done here in the last year has been exactly what we needed to happen,” Urban Meyer said Monday morning. “He’s grown up and led this team. He’s Johnny Brantley, and that’s good enough for us.”
INJURY UPDATE: Left tackles Matt Patchan (wrist) and Xavier Nixon (knee) are both still ruled out for Saturday’s season opener against Miami (OH). Meyer said both have earned the right to play, and they will try to get them back as soon as possible.
Defensive tackle Terron Sanders will be held out of the game with a sprained knee. Meyer emphasized the injury was nothing major. Jordan Reed is questionable with a deep bruise near his knee.
Stephen Alli hasn’t practiced in a week with a groin injury, but he is listed as probable.
FAMILIAR UNCERTAINTY: 2007 was the last time Florida had so many questions. However, Meyer thinks there are more questions this season. Important players have gone to the NFL just as they did before the 2007 season, but the group that replaces them this fall will be more seasoned than in 2007.
“I think we have more (questions), but I think we have better answers than we did in 2007,” Meyer said. “There are a lot of questions. You’re returning a lot of guys we’re anxious to see play as opposed to ’07 we had no idea what we were dealing with. Actually, we did know what we were dealing with, we just weren’t that excited about it. We’re real excited about this group.”
The new players aren’t all freshmen. With the veteran defense Florida had last season, even guys who have moved from the bench to starting roles will have extra bounce in their step as they run out of the tunnel.
“You’ll see a bunch of wide eyes because there are a bunch of players who will play,” Meyer said. “I see a bunch of energetic, enthusiastic group of guys that are ready. It’s payday for them. You don’t come here to practice on those (camp practice) fields. You come here to prepare, train and get ready for The Swamp. I love the energy we have.”
DEFENSIVE END QUESTIONS: The defensive end position still headlines the worries for the Gators. Meyer has talked highly of his two senior starters, Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens, from the effort each has given throughout camp.
Meyer refers to Trattou as the only “known commodity” on the line. Lemmens has provided depth over the past two years, but this fall Meyer expects him to have a breakout season.
“Duke is kind of an unknown on the outside (of the program),” Meyer said. “On the inside, everybody knows what he can do. He’s a tremendous effort guy and it’s non-stop.”
Meyer singled William Green out for being a junior who is familiar with the program, and the increased sense of comfort should translate to the field. Freshman Ronald Powell is expected to be “a significant contributor.” Jaye Howard will also slide out to defensive end in some situations.
“We set the bar real high at defensive end. I’m not sure if there’s been better in the last five years than what we’ve had. We’re not going to drop our expectations. Everybody has a good idea what Trattou can do, and I think he’ll be one of the best in the SEC. I think you’ll be surprised with Duke Lemmens and what he brings to the table.”
LINEBACKER BATTLE: The race for playing time at linebacker is now narrowed to three players for two positions. AJ Jones has secured the SAM linebacker position, leaving Brandon Hicks, Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic to fight for the WILL and MIKE linebacker spots.
The decision on who starts will be made when linebackers coach DJ Durkin has a chance to evaluate who has the best week of practice. In the end, the playing time should be even enough where the starters at linebacker see the field as often as the fourth player who doesn’t start.
“People make more of it than we make out of it,” Meyer said. “At the end of the day, I’m hoping they each play 36 plays.”
KICKOFF AND PUNT RETURNERS: Jeff Demps will return kickoffs on Saturday, while Chris Rainey will return punts. Demps has shown shaky hands during some plays on offense, but the coaching staff isn’t worried about him returning kickoffs.
“Catching kickoffs is not real difficult,” Meyer said. “You go as fast as you can and follow the lead blocker.”
Rainey has been a little shaky during his few chances to return punts, but Meyer said he has seen Rainey put in a lot of work to improve for the opportunity.
“Punt is a different game,” Meyer said. “Chris has done a real nice job. The punt return is a unique skill. He’s worked real hard at it.”
LOOKING FOR PLAYMAKERS: The position Meyer is most focused on this week during practice is the wide receivers. Their legs were still heavy from training camp. The coaching staff gave the team 48 hours off starting after Saturday’s scrimmage, so the time off should allow them to have a good week of game preparation.
“I’m very excited with where we are,” Meyer said. “That’s still the most important position as we get ready because their legs were in cement the past couple weeks. That’s typical of training camp. When you have dead legs, it’s hard to get your timing down.”
While Alli has missed the last week of practice, Florida moved Andre Debose from the slot receiver to the X receiver, serving as a backup to Deonte Thompson. Rainey and Robert Clark have manned the slot position. However, if Alli can get healthy for this weekend, Debose could move back to the slot.
MIAMI (OH) REPORT: The film preparation for Miami (OH) will intensify Monday, but the coaching staff already has a good idea of what to prepare for.
“They’ve got a good quarterback who is a sophomore now. They’ve got two SEC-caliber wide receivers, and they’ve got a transfer in from Iowa that one of our coaches saw in high school. That’s our number one concern. Up front, we have to hold onto our gaps.”
DEFENSIVE CHANGES: Although there is a new defensive coordinator in Gainesville, Meyer doesn’t expect to see many fundamental changes. There will be small tweaks that Teryl Austin brings with him, but the base defense for the Gators will look similar to when Charlie Strong was on the sidelines.
“I don’t think it will be that different, but there are some wrinkles that have his name all over it. You don’t win games because of schematic (changes). He’s not a guru or one of those guys that’s going to look completely different. The best coaches I’ve been around are the guys that motivate well and make sure their players are ready. You’ll see a little wrinkle or two, but his name will be on that defense as far as running hard to the football.”
OFFENSIVE CHANGES: The offense is a different story. There will be new formations and different plays out of familiar formations to find the best way to use Brantley’s skill set.
“On offense, it’s going to be a little more traditional and like when Chris Leak was our quarterback,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of confidence in our tailbacks, which is new around here. We have a very stout offensive line. You’ll see some under center stuff. I don’t think it will be that much different.”
FRESHMEN COMING ON: Meyer singled out two freshmen that earned playing time with their recent performances. Jonathan Dowling had a “really good” scrimmage Saturday and Meyer “anticipates” that he worked himself into the lineup.
Neiron Ball is also coming off a good week of practice and will see the field.
The large number of freshmen means the Gators will trot plenty of them onto the field this weekend.
“You’ll see a lot of them play,” Meyer said.
COACHING CONTINUITY: A smile came to Meyer’s face when asked about the way his assistant coaches have meshed. Both sides of the ball have mixed well with different ideas that only benefit the team.
“I’m very pleased with where we’re at as a coaching staff,” Meyer said. “When we hire coaches, we don’t go out and try to find some guy who has the answer to offense or defense. We want good chemistry people, good fathers, good husbands. We want good players to get them go as hard as they can. I don’t care what you bring in as far as scheme because we aren’t going to change much. Can you get your guys to go from point A to point B as fast as they go? Then go to class and graduate. If you do that, you’re a very valuable coach.”
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