While the unit is young, the guys on it "have grown up," says Meyer, who agrees that the identity of this defense differs from that of his national championship unit in '06—"and not in a negative way. We're kind of an all-for-one, one-for-all type outfit."
They are tight-knit and loose, cracking up last week when Meyer interrupted practice for a series of impromptu sprints between graduate assistants—who proved conclusively that Florida's vaunted team speed does not carry over to its coaching staff. The mood was less cheerful at the end of the workout, when defensive linemen and linebackers were held back for extra sprints and grass drills. By honing their fitness to a razor's edge during the 33-day break between games, the front seven are preparing to ...
... Beat the clock.
That is, they're expecting to stay on the field for more snaps than usual, rather than risk being caught in a substitution and getting flagged for too many men on the field, � la TCU. Says Baylor's Pawelek, "It's almost worth it to simplify your game plan and simplify your substitution package so you can get the call in, get set and be ready to play. Communication becomes even more important ... making sure everyone is playing the same defense. Even if it's not the coach's first choice, if you're all playing the same defense, you'll be all right."
This tracks with what Florida safeties coach Chuck Heater has been telling his guys: "Even if we've got the wrong call in, make sure everybody has the same wrong call. Everybody playing the wrong defense is better than everybody playing a different defense."
Normally, a window for defensive substitution opens whenever the offense shuttles in personnel groups. But Wilson, the Oklahoma offensive coordinator, has slammed shut that window by luring to Norman such hybrid athletes as Gresham (6'6", 261), Brody Eldridge (6'5", 265) and Matt Clapp (6'3", 234). "Those guys are so athletic," says Gators strong safety Ahmad Black, "they can be driving the ball on you with different personnel groups but with the same people on the field." To neutralize the Sooners, a defense will need to ...
... Bust the Cluster.
If the OU roster is to be believed, Gresham and Eldridge are tight ends and Clapp is a fullback. Those labels mean little to Wilson, who delights in plugging them into any number of positions and configurations. In the renowned Cluster formation they're all aligned on the same side of the field—running pass routes on one play, blocking on a sweep on the next. Same bodies, different personnel requirements. No opportunities for the D to substitute.
"Their uniqueness is that they can run the spread with three tight ends," says Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, whose Orange Bowl--bound Bearcats kept it close in Norman (trailing Oklahoma 28--20 midway through the third quarter before succumbing 52--26). "Usually when a team has two or three tight ends out there, you can keep your base defense on the field. [But Gresham, Eldridge and Clapp] are just as capable of playing wide receiver as they are at lining up as an attached tight end. If you nickel out [bringing in an extra defensive back], they'll put one of those guys at fullback and run downhill power at you."
FROM THE time they started their BCS championship game preparation on Dec. 8, Meyer and his defensive coaches have drilled into their charges the importance of being supremely fit and prepared for a quick snap. Yet, sitting in his office last Thursday, the gimlet-eyed Gator in chief was thinking more about Oklahoma's players than its ballyhooed spread.
"Yes, their scheme's really good, but you win with personnel. We'll get lined up," Meyer promised. "What I'm telling our coaches is, 'Let's make sure we're fundamentally sound when we do, or they'll beat us to death.'"