Commentary

Gators face many spring questions

Originally Published: March 22, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Change is a constant in college football. The roster turns over by 25 percent every year. Players mature from prospect to star in the course of a season. And if the coach is lucky, they withstand the lure of the NFL and remain a star for a second season.

Change is constant, and yet even by that standard, the list of questions that must be answered by the Florida Gators in spring practice is as long and friendly as a loan application.

Urban Meyer, the head coach who restored the Gators to the dominance they enjoyed throughout the 1990s under Steve Spurrier, resigned and unresigned and took a leave of absence and recruited anyway and, well, is still writing a mystery that all of college football is devouring. Call it "The Boy with The Gator Tattoo."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Phil SandlinUrban Meyer was back on the field when Florida's spring practice kicked off.

Quarterback Tim Tebow, the iconic Heisman Trophy winner, completed his eligibility and leaves a void that may be larger off the field than on.

Five juniors, including Mackey Award-winning tight end Aaron Hernandez and Rimington Trophy-winning center Maurkice Pouncey and All-American cornerback Joe Haden, left for the NFL.

Eleven January enrollees -- 11! -- participated in their first session of spring practice last week.

"I feel old," senior defensive end Justin Trattou said.

There are also four new assistant coaches and, lest we forget, a head coach groping about, learning how to delegate. Madison Avenue would call him New and Removed.

"I didn't know what to expect," Meyer said after the first practice last week.

There's been a lot of that going around ever since Meyer announced on Dec. 26 that he was resigning for health reasons, only to rescind the resignation the following day. Steve Addazio, the offensive coordinator who stood in as head coach while Meyer restored himself, couldn't explain the delineation of duties.

"His involvement is becoming greater," Addazio said. "It's unscripted, you know what I mean? Ultimately, you're in uncharted waters. I mean, he's doing great, so there's nothing negative or anything like that. He's doing fantastic. I'm going to help him wherever I can with the workload wherever I need to take it."

The Meyer who appeared on the Gators' practice fields last week is not the same, exhausted shell of a coach who staggered into the end of last season. Meyer has regained the 20 pounds he lost. There is more color in his cheeks, albeit a little less in his hair.

"This week, he's really been back in earnest," secondary coach Chuck Heater said. The meetings told Heater what he wanted to hear.

"How he basically crystallizes what the expectations are, what your role is and having those meetings, communicating those things to me, I was, 'OK, I've heard these things before,'" Heater said. "So his energy was certainly there. He's excited about being back. That's the part that's fun for all of us."

The players have no qualms about Meyer. Not the recruits, the No. 1 class that Meyer held together via phone, and not the returnees.

"He wasn't much different," quarterback John Brantley said of Meyer following the first practice. "He's doing fine. He's being himself. I was just happy to see him out there. He was good."

[+] EnlargeJohn Brantley
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJohn Brantley is ready for his shot to lead the Gators.

Brantley, a redshirt junior, is a second-generation Gator. His father, also John, started at quarterback in the late 1970s. His uncle Scot is a former Gators All-American linebacker.

John Brantley was the 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year. That award has been on a shelf for three years. So has the guy who won it.

Watching for three years proved that Brantley has one quality that every good quarterback needs -- patience.

"Very patient," Brantley described himself. "My freshman year, of course you come in there wanting to play, but I knew I wasn't going to. And then just as the other two years came by, I just figured out I'm not going to be playing that much and I just need to sit back and take in as much as I can. … I think I'm ready now."

Brantley, his coaches and teammates say, can make all the throws. Given the job before him, all the throws are only half the battle. John Brantley nods in understanding. He's had a front-row seat for The Legend of Tim Tebow.

"I don't look at him like that at all," Brantley said. "It's weird. I look at him as a friend of mine. I can say I'm replacing a friend. But I know he is one of the greatest college football players of all time."

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Brantley has replaced Tebow once before -- in the Florida high school record book. Brantley threw 99 touchdown passes at Ocala Trinity Catholic, one more than the record that Tebow shared.

"I never really brought that up," Brantley said with a grin. "I think he had some other accolades a little bit bigger than that."

Brantley never brings much of anything up. Asked what he learned from Tebow, Brantley said, "Leadership."

"I don't like to talk much," Brantley said. "I lead by example. But I need to start being more vocal now that I'm the starter. But that's his [Tebow's] strength. He's a great leader. He's very vocal. He can talk in front of anybody. Sitting back this past three years, that's what I've watched. When things got down, how he could raise a team up and get them fired up and get them going again. Coming into this spring practice, that's what I'm going to work on."

There is a lot to work on. The defense must be almost entirely rebuilt. Trattou, the captain, used the word "hungry" three times to describe the 2010 Gators. There is great potential in Gainesville. Potential, coaches will tell you, is a complimentary way of saying that the Gators have many questions to answer.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com