Gators face uphill battle as spring practices opens

Updated: March 24, 2007, 1:04 PM ET
Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Urban Meyer spent his first spring evaluating and his second one fine-tuning.

His third one is all about rebuilding.

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The defending national champion Gators open spring practice Wednesday with one goal: finding replacements for 14 starters, including nine on defense, from the team that dominated Ohio State in the title game.

It could be a challenge, especially with a small number of upperclassmen waiting in the wings. Meyer will have seven seniors and eight juniors to rely on for leadership during spring drills.

"We're not a good team," Meyer said last week. "We're a little bit of a train wreck right now. You can't have seven seniors at the University of Florida. It's not a real positive right now."

The Gators lost every starter on defense except for end Derrick Harvey -- the defensive MVP of the title game -- and safety Tony Joiner. End Jarvis Moss, safety Reggie Nelson, cornerback Ryan Smith and linebacker Brandon Siler could have returned for another year, but they decided to leave early for the NFL.

"I wish I could say we're going to make another run," Meyer said. "I have no idea. That's so farfetched, but rebuilding the defense is obviously the key to us having success. Our coaches on defense are going to have to earn their stripes this year."

Several young players will be counted on to pick up the slack. At linebacker, many expect Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe to step in without much trouble.

The secondary and defensive line are much more of a concern because of limited numbers. But the Gators plan to look at several offensive players on the other side of the ball, including running back Markus Manson, receiver Joe Haden and tight end Trent Pupello.

Meyer will turn the offense over to Tim Tebow, a two-dimensional quarterback who split time with senior Chris Leak during his freshman season. Tebow mostly ran in short-yardage and goal-line situations last season, so Meyer hopes to hone his passing skills in the spring.

The Gators also lost center Steve Rissler and receivers Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius.

But after signing the consensus No. 2 recruiting class in 2006 and then adding the top class last month, Meyer has plenty of young talent to help fill the void.

That's not always the best situation, though.

"A lot of the younger guys woke up on third base and didn't hit the triple," Meyer said. "That's a great way of looking at it. All of a sudden they're holding up ... crystal balls and getting measured for rings and they're [shaking] the president of the United States' hand without going through three years of -- some people consider it torture -- we call it player development."

Much of the incoming recruiting class will get an early start since nine signees already have enrolled at Florida and will practice this spring. The group includes quarterbacks Bryan Waggener and Cameron Newton and four teammates from Class 5A state champion Lakeland High.

Meyer signed three quarterbacks in all, and said two of them will play behind Tebow next season.

"I think the competition's going to be fierce," Meyer said. "I think that's going to be a great thing to watch as a coach."

The rebuilding process might not be nearly as enjoyable.

"You watch the highlight tapes, you watch the rerun [of the title game] ... and you realize that a lot of those guys are gone," Meyer said. "There are so many positives from last year that we have a heck of an obligation or responsibility to build upon that.

"There's no sustaining. If you're sustaining, you're losing, you're going backward. We're moving. We're not sitting back trying to figure out how to enjoy this. We're trying to figure out how to build upon it and that's a hell of a task."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press