Cost of injuries to Gator squad has been devastating in 2005
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
On one of the happiest nights of the season, a nagging sense of gloom intruded on the festive mood.
VITALS: Senior wide receiver
INJURY: Sprained ankle, fractured rib, punctured lung
DURATION OUT: Never missed a game
VITALS: Senior cornerback
INJURY: Broken leg
DURATION OUT: Expected to play in Outback Bowl after Nov. 5 injury
VITALS: Junior wide receiver
INJURY: Broken leg
DURATION OUT: Never returned after Sept. 17 injury
VITALS: Junior wide receiver
INJURY: Sprained ankle
DURATION OUT: Missed one game
VITALS: Junior defensive end
INJURY: Knee injury
DURATION OUT: Missed three games and is out for the Outback Bowl
Florida's 16-7 victory over Tennessee on Sept. 17 was huge, an early defining moment for Urban Meyer's program, but it came with a terrible cost.
In that victory, the Gators lost their fastest receiver and projected No. 1 playmaker and their best defensive lineman to devastating injuries. Andre Caldwell, who had begun to excel in his many roles in Meyer's spread offense, broke his leg on the second-half kickoff and end Ray McDonald, one of UF's most dominant defensive players, injured his knee.
The injuries cost Caldwell and McDonald their seasons and sort of bumped Florida's season a little off course and into a different direction.
That night established a disturbing injury theme that would stick with the Gators for the rest of the year.
"Injuries are part of college football, especially in the SEC," Meyer said. "But the two we got. ...Tennessee was a very expensive game for our team. The two playmakers who were sent down, it obviously had a great effect on our team. But we're not the only team in the country that had to deal with that."
And was left to wonder what might have been.
"If everyone had stayed healthy I think things would have turned out a little differently," said senior cornerback Vernell Brown, whose broken leg in the Vanderbilt game also might have had an impact on the season.
Florida's offense never seemed to recover from the loss of Caldwell, whose speed stretched the field and would have created opportunities for the other receivers.
"With Andre's speed, he could have been one of those guys where two (defenders) have to go with him," quarterback Chris Leak said. "It could have been a great advantage for us getting other guys open. That's one of the big advantages we have with Andre."
Said junior wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius: "It was a real big blow. He's a big playmaker and he's real fast. He was going to play a key part in our offense. When he went down, it was a real blow for us."
Caldwell's injury not only took a large chunk of big-play capability out of the offense, it also exposed the Gators' lack of depth at wide receiver. When Cornelius sprained his ankle the following week, UF was left with basically only two receivers capable of making plays - Chad Jackson and Dallas Baker.
"With Andre out and the guys behind him injured and beat up, it kind of hinders what you can do on offense," Leak said.
By the time Cornelius was healthy enough to be effective again, Baker sprained an ankle and then fractured a rib.
UF hasn't had its three top wide receivers (Jackson, Cornelius and Baker) all healthy at the same time since the Tennessee game.
All three should be 100 percent for Monday's Outback Bowl game against Iowa.
"It makes a huge difference," Meyer said. "And now that we've got the other guys ready to go we have some options. There was about a four or five-game stretch where you felt like you didn't have enough receivers. When you have to line up (fullback) Billy Latsko at wide receiver, you have an issue. I love Billy, but not as a wide receiver."
While the offense has missed Caldwell's speed and playmaking ability, the defense lost a big-play guy of its own when McDonald went down with the knee injury.
"That really hurt us," senior strong safety Jarvis Herring said. "We knew we were going to get a lot of pressure (on the quarterback) from Ray. Everyone knew how quick his jump off the ball was. When he went down it was like, boy, now we've got to find somebody else to get that pressure. Ray was one of the best. That was a big loss."
McDonald tried to play in pain over the last half of the season, but was ineffective and ended up injuring his other knee in the victory over Florida State. McDonald recently had surgery on one knee and the other knee will be operated on next week.
Sophomore Jarvis Moss replaced McDonald as UF's pass-rushing defensive end and leads the team in sacks with 7.5. But depth on the defensive line has been an issue since McDonald's injury.
"Ray McDonald was probably our best defensive lineman," middle linebacker Brandon Siler said. "Losing him was big. We had some guys step up, but there is no one like Ray McDonald when he's at full strength."
Senior defensive end Jeremy Mincey said McDonald was on his way to having a great season before the injury.
"He's a very talented guy," Mincey said. "He would have been unstoppable."
Perhaps the most critical injury of all was the one to Brown, UF's best defensive back and cover corner. Had he played in the South Carolina game, maybe he would have made a play or two to make a difference in the 30-22 loss in Columbia. Maybe the Gators would have won that game and gone on to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
"Vernell was the heart and soul of our team," Mincey said. "He brought leadership, experience, he brought a lot to the table. To see a guy like that go down takes a toll on the team."
Herring said the loss of Brown forced the Gators to change a lot of the things they had been doing on defense, especially in pass coverage.
"We learned how to work without Andre and Ray," Herring said. "But then to lose Vernell late in the season, it was real big. It kind of changed the whole defense. The defense kind of had to learn how to play all over again.
"Vernell is the guy everybody looked at. They'd say, 'We're going after this guy because he's small.' He was making all the plays. He was a big, big part of the defense. When he went down, we tried not to show it, but it hurt us all."
It might have been a different season if Brown, Caldwell and McDonald had stayed healthy.
"Any time you take a big player out of your offense and two out of your defense, you wonder and dream how much better you could have been," Herring said. "But we're not going to dwell on it."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by calling 374-5022 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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