Gators face uphill battle as spring practices opens

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

His third one is all about rebuilding.

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."