Mission accomplished: Gators find playmakers

True freshman offensive lineman Nick Alajajian, middle, celebrates a 52-yard field goal made by kicker Caleb Sturgis during the Orange and Blue Debut on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 6:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 6:33 p.m.

The Florida team playing in The Swamp on Saturday did not look much like the one that beat Oklahoma in the national championship game three months ago. And it certainly did not look like the team that will take the field for the Sept. 5 opener.

On Saturday there was no Nelson, no Hernandez, no Demps, no Pouncey (either one of the twins), no Spikes, no Haden, no Jenkins, no Wright.

No defensive starters and very little Tim Tebow.

In the Gators' first performance since the BCS Championship Game in Miami, UF coach Urban Meyer turned the stage over to his young players in the Orange and Blue Debut.

He had no choice, really, given all the injuries and the fact he has so many veteran players (including all 11 returning defensive starters) who don't really need to add another spring game to their resumes.

"We had an excellent day and they (an announced crowd of 65,000) were able to see some guys make some plays," Meyer said. "(No. 2 quarterback) John Brantley managed the game well. (True freshman middle linebacker) Jon Bostic is going to be battling for significant playing time. We saw (redshirt freshman wide receiver) Frankie Hammond finish a very productive spring.

"We had certain players that need work. Spring is to find playmakers and enhance the skill level of guys who have played. Certain guys, I saw enough of this spring."

There were a host of young players who, given the opportunity, turned into playmakers Saturday.

There was Brantley, who quarterbacked the Orange team to a 31-21 victory over Tebow's Blue team. He completed 12-of-18 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns for the Orange. He completed two more passes for 51 yards while quarterbacking the Blue in the second half while Tebow watched.

There was Hammond, looking like a young Ike or Reidel, catching four passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns and producing the move of the day on redshirt freshman cornerback Adrian Bushell to get in the end zone for a 50-yard TD play.

There was redshirt freshman middle linebacker Brendan Beal intercepting a pass and recording a game-high 13 tackles.

There was Bostic stuffing the run.

There was redshirt freshman receiver T.J. Lawrence catching six passes for 72 yards and showing he can make things happen after the catch.

"It was great (seeing all the young players making plays)," Tebow said. "That's what this day is for, for the young guys to get experience playing in The Swamp in front of the fans and going out there and competing."

For Brantley, it was a good ending to what has been a very good spring for the heir apparent to Tebow in 2010.

"The spring has gone really well," he said. "I've learned a lot. Coach (Scot) Loeffler has taught me so much. I have to keep building on it in the summer."

Brantley not only looked good throwing the ball, he looked good managing (and moving) the offense.

"Johnny can play," Meyer said. "He really showed some stuff."

New offensive coordinator Steve Addazio was impressed.

"He had a great spring," Addazio said. "Watching his performance in the pocket, his poise. He took a shot under the chin (on one play) and delivered a strike. He showed all the signs and evidence of developing into a heck of a good football player.

"He's a legitimate football player. We have a lot of confidence in him, and feel terrific about him. The exclamation point came out there for him today."

The postgame vibes are also good for Hammond and Lawrence and some other young players.

"Our No. 1 goal this spring was to develop depth," Addazio said. "With the injuries we had, it forced us to really focus on that development. We saw some wide receivers making some plays, which is great. We saw (redshirt freshman center) Sam Robey take a bunch of snaps, which is tremendous. I could go on and on. We wanted to develop depth this spring and I think we got that done.

"No question, we saw today that Hammond and Lawrence can play. They had some really elusive, make-you-miss runs. That's something we really wanted to see. It was a good day."

The young guy Meyer praised the most was Bostic, an early enrollee who figures to be in the playing rotation at linebacker in the fall.

"I love the guy," Meyer said. "I love his professionalism. His father played in the NFL. When we were recruiting Jon, he said, 'I'm going to be very serious about my job and I'm going to take care of my stuff off the field.' And he has. He's playing (in the fall). The redshirt is gone. He's battling for a playing spot."

Meyer said Hammond and Lawrence will also be playing in the fall.

Now that the spring game is behind them, it's time for the Gators to get healthy and brace for what Meyer said would be the toughest offseason workouts in the history of the program.

It's all about getting ready for 2009 and all the expectations that certainly hover over the defending national champions in their bid to repeat.

"We're where you want to be," Meyer said of his program. "We can't lose our edge. If we didn't have all those minor dings, you would have seen a hell of a team jog out there today. We envision this is it, where we want to be.

"We just have to be careful. We'll have the most difficult offseason that Florida has ever had. Then we'll have the most difficult training camp they've ever gone through. We're going to make it so hard that they have a hard time picking up the Street & Smith magazine telling them how good they are."

Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or at andreur@gvillesun.com.

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