Thomas affair: UF survived, now thrives
Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
You've probably heard it or read it on a Web site chat room, how much better the Gator Nation would feel about this national championship game if Marcus Thomas were still with the team.
Thrice suspended, his absence was supposed to doom this Florida team down the stretch. And yet the Gators are here, gazing at mountains and spiny cacti answering questions about rings and trophies.
It begs the question — how did Florida get here without one of its best players?
(I guess Urban Meyer is rubbing off on me because I'm asking myself questions and then answering them. "Is Reggie Nelson a great player? Yes, he is.")
Here in the Valley of the Sun, the answers came as easily as chicken wings in the hospitality suite.
1. The depth was there
When Thomas said "no mas" to the conditions placed on him by Meyer and left the team before the Vanderbilt game, the Florida defensive coaches decided that the best solution was to move Ray McDonald inside, use Steven Harris as a nose tackle and use Joe Cohen at the other tackle.
It gave Florida a solid three-man rotation.
"The reason we were able to survive is that we had enough guys that it saved us," said co-coordinator Charlie Strong.
Harris was still on the team because he did buy into the demands of his head coach. "He came to us and said, 'I can do it,'" said co-coordinator Greg Mattison.
For Cohen, the departure of Thomas meant the playing time he always wanted when he came to UF as a big-time recruit.
"The coaches pulled me aside and said, 'You've got to go the whole game now,'" Cohen said.
It meant that Cohen had one job — take on the double teams and free up the linebackers. It's the kind of job that doesn't result in a lot of praise except from the people who understand his mission.
"(Brandon) Siler and (Earl) Everett keep telling me to keep those linemen off of them," Cohen said. "As long as I do that, we're good."
Mattison said that tackles from Cohen are not an issue.
"I respect Joe so much," Mattison said. "He can have two tackles in a game but he grades out as a champion. He does what we ask him to do."
2. They got over it
Thomas was a big part of this team and formed close bonds with the players, especially the seniors. But what are you going to do?
Their season was far from over even if his was.
"Nobody sobbed for too long," Siler said. "We all care for Marcus Thomas but we had to pick up where he left off."
Instead of a woe-is-me attitude, the Gator defenders just went back to work as if Thomas had been lost to an injury.
"It's not like we consider him an outcast," Cohen said. "But the fact that we are a close team helped us get through it."
Today, even with Thomas popping off during the layoff about Meyer's tough discipline, his absence is almost an afterthought.
"That happened a long time ago," said cornerback Ryan Smith. "We definitely miss his presence, but we've moved on."
3. The defensive ends are pretty good
Without Thomas, Florida had to get better play from defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey. It wasn't just the pass rush but the ability to stop the run that had to get better.
Moss, especially, was one-dimensional during the first half of the season. But he picked up his game after Thomas left and became a bonafide run-stopper.
"We still had Moss and Harvey," Strong said. "And they both got a lot better."
4. They weren't all that surprised
Since Thomas missed the opener and two other games because of his suspensions for failing drug tests, when he left it wasn't exactly a shock to the Gators.
"It was tough emotionally," Siler said. "But we had suffered that blow a couple of times already during the season."
In a way, the closure helped because after talking to the players you could sense they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. And when you are wondering about a teammate's commitment, it's almost addition by subtraction when it's finally resolved.
The bottom line is that Florida would be more talented if Thomas were still part of the team. He was a ferocious pass rusher with a combination of strength and quickness that made him an elite player.
But the way Florida recovered is one of the things that has made this a special team, one win away from the most special of seasons.
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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