Young Gators brace for huge crowd
Published: Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:27 p.m.
Orange Tennessee "T's" are in the urinals. "Rocky Top" is blaring through speakers on the practice field, locker room and just about anywhere Florida players and coaches are inside the Gators' football facility.
That can mean only one thing — it's rivalry week in Gainesville.
With No. 10 Florida (2-0) set to travel to its SEC-opener at Tennessee (1-1), the passion — and hatred — involved with this game is gushing as Florida coach Urban Meyer and his staff prepare the ultimate psychological tactics for players Saturday.
"There's a lot of cheerleading that goes on the first two games," Meyer said. "You don't have to do that now."
Motivating players isn't an issue with league play beginning, but with a slew of young players who have never played in an environment like the one expected with more than 100,000 fans crammed into Neyland Stadium, preparation intensifies.
Are the 16 true freshmen who played for Florida through two weeks ready to see things like a 4-year-old flashing a one-finger salute? That's something UF senior offensive lineman Carl Johnson said he saw outside Neyland in 2008.
And who will protect the young Gators from the scene in Knoxville — "a bunch of drunk, old people" — that senior safety Ahmad Black witnessed when he got off the bus two years ago?
"I can't take their nerves away from them," said defensive line coach Dan McCarney, who expects to have three true freshmen rotate Saturday. "It'll be an adjustment because there's going to be a crazy, wild Tennessee crowd there."
To help, Meyer said former players have come to preach the history and importance of the rivalry, and strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti is delivering even more boisterous, motivating barbs toward players.
Knoxville's conditions aren't new to everyone. Some younger players have been there for games, cheering in the recruiting area. Freshman cornerback Cody Riggs knows Neyland better than most because his brother, Gerald Riggs Jr., played at UT from 2002-2005. Riggs' brother and father are expected at the game Saturday.
"I'm very excited to go up there and play in front of him and my dad," said Riggs, whose brother's poster is plastered to one of Florida's locker room walls.
The freshmen aren't the only ones in new territory. This is redshirt sophomore cornerback Jeremy Brown's first SEC game after a back injury sidelined him for two years. As an inexperienced traveler, he's expecting Saturday to be the harshest environments he's been in.
"I'm ready for the challenge," Brown said. "It's going to be a hostile environment. I'm ready to step up and make some plays."
Florida's players exude the confidence of a team poised for Knoxville's antics, but Johnson is quick to reiterate the importance of this game. Not only is it a rivalry game, but it will set the tone for the Gators' long conference stretch.
A loss to a rival to open league play won't be forgotten quickly.
"Nobody wants to lose to Tennessee," he said. "You don't want to be that class that loses a big game. That will haunt you for years."