April 27, 2006

Florida finds wide receiver help

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Florida's top player of the spring could have been a brooding quarterback, an even more disgruntled tight end or on someone else's roster.

In two years, Cornelius Ingram's career as a Florida quarterback fizzled. He was even less happy when the coaching staff moved him to tight end during preparation for the Outback Bowl.

A two-sport start at Hawthorne, Fla., he abandoned the idea of playing for the Gators' basketball team just before their national championship season.

A change of scenery this spring went a long way.

After a trying two years in Gainesville, Ingram was all smiles after Florida's spring game Saturday.

The change came after he found a home at wide receiver. Ingram quickly turned heads during the spring and nailed down the fourth receiver spot in the Gators' spread offense.

"It's incredible," Ingram said. "If I would have started out there, who knows? I'm glad it happened. It's better sooner rather than later. I wish I would have started off there."

He capped his spring with seven catches for 58 yards in Saturday's Orange and Blue game. He ran the ball once for 6 yards and attempted a pass in the Orange team's 24-6 win.

"There aren't many guys like him," said freshman Tim Tebow, who quarterbacked Ingram's team. "He's going to be a good receiver for us. He really makes the quarterback look a lot better than he is. He made me look better on a lot of plays."

After showing up in Florida's record book as little more than a participant during his first two seasons, Ingram questioned his place at Florida.

An Inside Look
Old reliable: Linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett both started as true freshmen and haven't looked back. They have been Florida's top two tacklers each of the last two years and are poised for All-SEC seasons.
Promising newcomer: Tim Tebow should be finishing his senior year of high school right now. Instead, his performance in the spring game put pressure on rising senior quarterback Chris Leak.
Solid unit: Three starters missed most of spring practice, but the defensive line will be the strength of the defense in the fall. Defensive end Ray McDonald and tackle Marcus Thomas both considered leaving for the NFL but stayed in Gainesville.
Unit that needs work: It's starting to sound like a broken record, but the running backs are still an area of concern. Florida didn't find a 1,000-yard rusher during the spring, but the work-ethic problems that plagued the group last year appear to be gone. There's also a void at left guard.
Fast forward: The bulk of the starters are set, but how will the Gators' second-ranked signing class fit in? Brandon Spikes will get a look at the vacant outside linebacker spot. Meyer still seeks playmakers and said incoming freshmen could jump into the wide receiver rotation.
The move to tight end during bowl practices made the situation worse, and Tebow's arrival on campus in January meant it was unlikely he would return to quarterback.

He considered a transfer until Florida coach Urban Meyer convinced him to stay. Meyer placed the 6-foot-4, 225-pound target at wide receiver when spring drills started in March.

A matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, the move was a perfect fit for Ingram.

"He's going to present that mismatch out there," linebacker Brandon Siler said. "He's too fast for a linebacker to guard and too big for a defensive back."

Ingram was named Florida's most improved player in the spring, boosting a receiving corps that needed another playmaker with the early departure of Chad Jackson and additional depth after the injury to Andre Caldwell exposed Florida's lack of receivers last season.

It didn't take long for Ingram to ease Meyer's fears that last year would repeat itself.

"He's probably the most natural ball catcher I've seen since Cris Carter," said Meyer, who was a graduate assistant at Ohio State while Carter was there. "He's a natural. You can tell there was not a whole lot of Xbox in his life. He was out in the back yard throwing the ball around."

Notes from The Swamp
As comfortable as quarterback Tim Tebow looked in Florida's spread option offense, the true freshman chafed in his red non-contact jersey.

First, Tebow attempted to jump into the pregame Circle of Life ritual, a one-on-one battle of strength and toughness, before an assistant coach yanked him out of the center of the circle.

Then, during the scrimmage, he begged Meyer to call a designed quarterback run on a fourth down.

"I said 'Shut up, get back in the huddle. You're wearing a pink jersey,' " Meyer said. "It's his intensity and having that threat at that position, that's an equalizer."

Despite the non-contact rules, Tebow ran 11 times for 2 yards.

"I like to go out there and play football and hit, but they try to keep you safe," Tebow said.

How important is junior defensive end Jarvis Moss to Florida's plans? Moss wasn't hurt for the Orange and Blue game, but the Gators held him out of the scrimmage anyway.

"He had a tremendous spring and we can't afford to lose him," Meyer said. "He's a pass rusher. Those kinds of guys are tough to come by."

A year after leading the team in sacks (7.5) and tackles for a loss (11) off the bench, Moss tantalized coaches with his versatility. Several times during the spring, coaches dropped the 6-foot-6 pass-rusher into coverage from his defensive end position.

His coach doubted him, but Phil Trautwein made a believer out of Meyer during the last month.

Meyer said he questioned the junior's ability to fill the shoes of departed senior starter Randy Hand at left tackle, but Trautwein eased his fears during the spring.

"I didn't think he could do it," Meyer said. "I didn't think Phil Trautwein could be the starting left tackle for the University of Florida. Now, there's no doubt in my mind he can be."

Depth at wide receiver became an issue last season after No. 2 Andre Caldwell went down with a broken leg against Tennessee in the third game of the season.

With a top four already set with Caldwell, Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and Ingram, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen is looking for depth at the position.

In the spring game, the Blue team wide receivers did little to help Chris Leak with drops, but reserve wideouts Nyan Boateng and Louis Murphy did finish with a combined 12 catches for 126 yards. On the other side, David Nelson caught three passes for 90 yards.

"It's on them to make plays," Mullen said. "What happens if all of our wideouts get hurt in game one? Young guys always have to be ready to step in. That's what we saw last year."

Starting cornerback Avery Atkins missed the last five practices and the spring game to handle a family issue at home in Daytona Beach, Fla. Despite the absence, he will play in the fall.

Starting defensive tackle Steven Harris' status is less certain. Harris was held out of the spring for personal issues.

"He has some issues he has to clean up before he's welcomed back," Meyer said.

Making the Grade
Quarterback: 8.0
Urban Meyer said he expects Chris Leak to "take it to the next level" as a senior. He's about 2,604 yards behind Danny Wuerffel for Florida's career passing record, but he is 22-11 as a starter. True freshman Tim Tebow was impressive in the spring game, giving Florida at least a little comfort despite a lack of numbers at the position.
Running back: 6.0
Meyer chided the running backs at the start of spring practice. Although Florida hasn't found a featured back for 2006, the group as a whole started to shed its underachiever label. Markus Manson rushed 10 times for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Kestahn Moore missed the bulk of the spring with a bulging disk in his back.
Wide receiver: 7.5
Converted quarterback Cornelius Ingram was the revelation of the spring. With Ingram in the mix, Florida identified its top four receivers. Andre Caldwell will return in the fall from a broken leg sustained in the third game of the season last year. Seniors Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius round out the group.
Tight end: 5.0
From the look of the spring game, it's a good thing the offense doesn't utilize this position much. Tate Casey didn't start until the eighth game last year and has 248 receiving yards the last two years. He had three drops and one catch Saturday.
Offensive line: 5.5
Florida will have to replace four starters on the line, including All-SEC first-team center Mike Degory, a four-year starter. Junior Phil Trautwein claimed the left tackle spot soundly during the spring, but the guards could be an issue. Projected starter Jim Tartt missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. The other starter, redshirt freshman Ronnie Wilson, claimed the job at the start of spring and didn't let go.
Defensive line: 8.5
Florida's defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in school history when the fall comes around, provided everyone can stay healthy. Junior end Jarvis Moss emerged during the spring and is poised for a breakout year. Starting defensive end Ray McDonald is recovering from ACL surgery while starting tackles Marcus Thomas (hernia) and Steven Harris (personal issues) also missed time.
Linebacker: 8.0
Sophomore Brandon Siler and junior Earl Everett are potential All-SEC performers after both started since they were true freshmen. The problem will be the other outside linebacker spot vacated by Todd McCullough. Jon Demps is the projected starter, but he missed the spring following knee surgery.
Defensive back: 6.5
Sophomore Avery Atkins emerged to claim a starting spot at cornerback despite missing the last five practices of the spring because of a family issue. Reggie Nelson replaced Kyle Jackson as a starter at safety in the eighth game of the season and never looked back. Safety Tony Joiner and cornerback Reggie Lewis were the only two projected starters on defense to play in the spring game.
Special teams: 7.5
The Gators return two senior specialists. All-SEC second-team kicker Chris Hetland kicked a 52-yard field goal in the spring game. Eric Wilbur averaged 41.7 yards per punt last season.

For more coverage of the Florida Gators, check out GatorBait.net.


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