Commentary

Florida freshmen making immediate splash

Updated: October 5, 2007, 4:16 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

One way or the other, Joe Haden was destined to make an immediate splash at Florida.

Joe Haden
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesJoe Haden is the oldest of five Haden boys.

He was that kind of athlete, a record-setting high school quarterback in Fort Washington, Md., versatile enough that he was thinking wide receiver when he arrived in Gainesville and talented enough that he became the first true freshman in Florida history to start at cornerback in the season opener.

But even if Haden had not found his way onto the football field so quickly, there was always his car.

In only a few months' time, it's become as much a mainstay on Florida's campus as sun-soaked afternoons, and stunning coeds strolling up and down Gale Lemerand Drive.

"Joe Haden has one sweet ride," says admiring sophomore linebacker Dustin Doe, who quickly points out that he's still tooling around on his scooter.

Picture this: A 1997 orange Crown Victoria with black stripes, Gator magnets on the doors, 22-inch rims and three different television sets strategically placed inside the car.

"I've got an in-dash, touch-screen TV, another one where the passenger side air bag is and a 15-inch flip-down. You can be watching three different movies at once," Haden says proudly.

Doe adds, "He's got his own little media center in there."

Who says freshmen have to tread lightly in the Southeastern Conference? Not at Florida and certainly not this season, at least not on defense.

Haden is one of 16 freshmen and sophomores on Florida's defensive two-deep. He's part of a secondary that may get even younger Saturday at LSU depending on how much senior strong safety Tony Joiner is allowed to play after his early-morning escapades at a Gainesville tow lot earlier this week. (Felony charges were dropped Friday morning. Florida coach Urban Meyer said Joiner would make the trip, but declined to specify how much he would play.)

Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said earlier this week that sophomore Dorian Munroe was ready to step into Joiner's place if the former captain was suspended. Haden's true freshman cohort, Major Wright, will start at the other safety position for the second straight week.

Five of the Gators' top six tacklers are freshmen or sophomores, and Haden and Wright are among them.

The future for Florida's defense is promising and out there for all to see. But the only future Mattison is concerned about is at Tiger Stadium Saturday when the Gators (4-1, 2-1) try to put the Auburn loss behind them and get back into the SEC Eastern Division and national championship race.

"I never like to look out there and say what it might be like in the future," said Mattison, part of a Florida defensive staff that has a combined 115 years of collegiate coaching experience. "I don't think a coach can ever do that. Last year, I looked out there and saw a whole bunch of NFL football players.

"You're judged as a team and a coach by what you do in that game. Nobody really cares if they're 18 years old. The bottom line when you're at a school like the University of Florida is the product you put out there on the field. The last couple of years here, there's been a very, very high bar set.

"That's the level at which we expect to play, and it doesn't matter whether you're playing with freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors."

Most of Florida's inexperience on defense has shown up against the pass. The Gators are ninth in the SEC and 80th nationally in pass defense (247.4 yards per game).

"A lot of what's gotten us in trouble [in the secondary] was our nerves," said Haden, who graduated early from high school and had the benefit of going through spring practice. "I think we're past that now. When you're not sure of what you're doing, it's hard to just go out there and play.

"Me and Major were playing high school ball this time last year. There's a whole different tempo at this level. We knew we were going to take some lumps. But this is our sixth game. We know what to do now and are going to try and play like seniors the rest of the way."

They've had their moments -- good and bad.

Wright, who hits the way Haden's sound system in his Crown Vic thumps, separated Auburn running back Ben Tate from the ball with a punishing third-quarter hit last week. Haden was there to recover the fumble, which gave the Gators new life and got them back into the game.

But a week earlier, Mississippi receiver Mike Wallace streaked past Haden on a deep route, and Wright didn't rotate over fast enough. The result was a 77-yard touchdown.

"The first thing that happens with young players, especially young, talented players, is that you see a real good play like you expect because of their talent and then all of a sudden there might be a breakdown because of some mental or physical aspect," Mattison said. "You have to go as hard as you can every second to make up for that lack of experience."

Major Wright
J. Meric/Getty ImagesThe Gators will rely on Major Wright to come up with big plays against LSU.

That area that has haunted the Gators the most this season has been their inability to get consistent interior pressure. Derrick Harvey is one of the premier pass-rushers in the country, and his running mate on the other end, sophomore Jermaine Cunningham, also has been effective.

But whereas departed tackles Marcus Thomas, Joe Cohen and Steven Harris were blowing up the middle of opposing offensive lines a year ago, the Gators simply haven't been able to get that same push through the first five games this season. As a result, they've played far less man coverage in the secondary, and teams have been able to poke holes in their zone coverage at times.

The Gators have 11 quarterback sacks, but only one of those has come from an interior player -- true freshman Torrey Davis.

"What's happened is that the quarterback has been able to step up and throw the ball, and if our two outside guys aren't perfect getting after that quarterback, he has enough time because our inside guys aren't winning enough one-on-one battles," Mattison said.

Getting adequate pressure will be critical on Saturday, whether it's against Matt Flynn or Ryan Perrilloux. The feeling in the Gators' camp is that they may see a heavier dose of Perrilloux, especially with Flynn clearly not 100 percent with a high right ankle sprain that has lingered ever since he hurt it against Virginia Tech on Sept. 8. He was sacked six times last week against Tulane.

Of course, the most daunting challenge with the Tigers (5-0, 2-0) is stopping their running game. They pick and choose from a deep stable of tailbacks, and Mattison said the thing that jumps out to him is how much more speed LSU has in its backfield this season. Eight different players ran the ball in the 28-16 win over South Carolina.

"We're going to be aggressive, and we can't let these guys get us on our heels and run the ball," said Doe, a big reason the Gators have yet to allow anybody to rush for 100 yards this season. "They have a lot of speed on offense, but we have a lot of speed on defense."

While the Gators' youth on defense has reared its head more than once this season, to the point that they've looked downright vulnerable at times, they've also shown a certain resiliency and have been at their best in the fourth quarter.

The Gators have held three of their five opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter. The only points they've allowed in the final quarter was a passing touchdown to Troy when the game had long since been decided and a field goal to Auburn.

"We grew up a lot in the second half last week and showcased our character as a defense," Doe said. "We battled back, made adjustments and learned a lot about ourselves. We kept our composure.

"Everybody keeps talking about how good we're going to be in the future on defense. Our thing is: Why can't we be good now? That's the mind-set we're playing with right now and the mindset we'll have to play with.

"There's no room for excuses anymore as far as youth and inexperience. The future is now."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com.

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