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Expectations high at Florida despite uncertainty

September 2, 2010
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

GAINESVILLE (AP) - The buzzwords surrounding Florida last fall were "repeat," ''perfection," and "legacy," remnants of winning the 2008 national championship, returning nearly every starter and being the overwhelming favorite to do it again.

A year later, Gainesville is filled with "uncertainty."

The Gators have a new quarterback, four new assistant coaches, a revamped defense and few proven playmakers. They lost stars Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez and Joe Haden, nearly lost coach Urban Meyer, and entered fall practice without a clear-cut identity for the first time in years.

"It's a little different feeling," Meyer said. "But it's still Florida. It's still a bunch of good athletes. Not good, probably great athletes running around that field. It's a year of accountability and development. And if that happens. we'll have a good team. If it doesn't, we won't."

Meyer compared this season to 2007, the year after Florida won its second national title and the year Tebow took over as the starting quarterback. Expectations were high back then, but the Gators didn't have enough talent or experience to avoid four losses.

But Meyer and his players don't expect another rebuilding year. Not even close, really. Following several strong recruiting classes, they believe this is a reloading year that could include another trip to Atlanta for the conference title game. The Gators begin play Sept. 4 against Miami (Ohio).

Florida has represented the Eastern Division three times in the last four years, with the lone loss coming last year against Alabama. That 32-13 drubbing still resonates with players and coaches.

"When you have a loss so devastating as that one, you want to go into that next season hungry," quarterback John Brantley said. "A lot of people really have been doubting us. That's another big thing. We like to be tested like that. That's what gives us a chip on our shoulders."

Brantley has waited three years - even longer considering his background - for a chance to take over Florida's offense. He grew up in nearby Ocala rooting for the Gators. His father played quarterback at Florida and his uncle was a standout linebacker at Florida.

The youngest Brantley has even bigger shoes to fill. He's stepping in after Tebow, a three-time Heisman Trophy finalist who helped the Gators win 26 of 28 games the last two years. Tebow was Mr. Everything at Florida, serving as the team's emotional leader and the offense's go-to guy. He also got as much recognition for what he did off the field as he did on it.

Brantley hopes to avoid any comparisons while trying to create his own identity.

"I'm not going to be doing the hoo-rah kind of stuff," he said. "That's just not my style. And you know what? All the guys respect that about me. That's why we've got other guys on the team like Mike Pouncey and Ahmad Black, other people that will do that stuff to get the team going."

Maybe so, but the Gators are still trying to figure out who will get the offense and defense rolling.

Tebow, Spikes, Hernandez and Haden were among the key playmakers the last two years. Now, it's up to guys like Brantley, running back Jeff Demps, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and safety Will Hill to get it done.

"Each year, somebody leaves, somebody comes in and steps up big," linebacker Brandon Hicks said. "Once you have people that are willing to step up, it doesn't matter who leaves."

Florida has four coaches leave, too.

Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong took the head coaching job at Louisville. Cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter went with him. Receivers coach Billy Gonzales moved to LSU. Meyer replaced them with three coaches from his past - Zach Azzanni, D.J. Durkin and Stan Drayton - and hired longtime NFL assistant Teryl Austin to tweak the defense.

All four signed on at Florida without knowing how long Meyer would be around.

Meyer briefly resigned in late December, citing health concerns three weeks after he was rushed to a hospital with chest pain. He changed his mind the following day and instead decided to take a leave of absence following Florida's bowl game.

Meyer has since been diagnosed with esophageal spasms and is taking medication to eliminated the spasms that often cause chest pain.

"I feel great, especially when I get to see what kind of team we have," Meyer joked. "It's a good-looking team."

Maybe so, but it's still filled with uncertainty.

"You don't want what we had in '07," Meyer said. "This is part of the game. When guys leave early, you've got to replace them. But you've got guys who've been here. ... It's just time for them to play."

 
 
 

 

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