GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s startling, sometimes, how easy it is for a college football coach to control and bend the minds of his otherwise freethinking student-athletes. Consider what has taken place at the University of Florida as proof.
For more than a month, Florida’s defensive linemen have prattled on and on about some obscure ranking by a preseason magazine. On page 83 of Lindy’s Sports Southeastern 2010 Preview, the Gators’ defensive line was listed seventh in the Southeastern Conference in a section about position groups. Good heavens! To hear the players talk about it, it’s as if Lindy himself walked into a defensive huddle and besmirched the good names of each player’s mother.
Junior defensive end William Green called the ranking “a bunch of crap” and scowled angrily when venting, unprovoked, about it. That was last week. This week, senior defensive end Duke Lemmens said he used it as motivation during “every rep” of practice.
Why all this pent-up rage about some meaningless magazine filler? Credit UF defensive line coach Dan McCarney for his players” loose grasps on reality. It is McCarney who has reminded the players of the ranking throughout the preseason. Just imagine what Vanderbilt’s defensive linemen must be thinking. Lindy’s ranked them 12th in the SEC.
“When people are telling you that you aren’t any good, that you’re the No. 7 defensive line in the SEC, you feel that every rep you’re out there,” Lemmens said. “We’re really enjoying that pressure that’s on us.”
If a preseason magazine’s ranking so enrages UF” s defensive line, imagine what raw emotions must bubble to the surface when players such as Green and Lemmens are reminded about something that actually matters. For example, the 2009 SEC championship game.
Florida’s defensive line performed terribly that night, and the unit’s preparation for the biggest game of the season was even worse. Not that anyone needs reminding, but the most celebrated player of the group, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, didn’t even play because he was suspended for being arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Without Dunlap, Alabama’s offensive line bullied Florida up and down the field to the tune of 490 yards, including 251 yards on the ground.
Dunlap and the more reliable Jermaine Cunningham, a former three-year starter at defensive end, are now in the NFL. Who remains to fill the void? Well, that’s why more than a few people are skeptical of UF’s defense.
The projected starters at defensive end are a bit of an odd couple. There’s senior Justin Trattou of Ramsey, N.J. He loves homemade Italian food but hates the TV show Jersey Shore. At the other end is Trattou’s best friend, senior Duke Lemmens, who is from posh Westlake Village of Ventura County, Calif.
Combined, the two players have accounted for nine sacks in three years.
“My name comes up a lot,” Lemmens said when asked about the defensive line” s perceived lack of experience. “I’ve just always been a serviceable backup my whole life. I know that. That’s what everybody says about me. I love it. They’re not lying.
“This is my chance to prove to everyone I can do more than that.”
The spotlight is new for Lemmens, but he has long been a valued member of the team in the locker room. His energy is infectious, according to his teammates, and Lemmens is one of the most colorful characters on the team.
“If you had a face of the program, he’s one of the faces,” coach Urban Meyer said.
Still, Meyer was hesitant to name Lemmens a definitive starter this week and he enters the third week of training camp unsure about the pass rush.
“I’m a little concerned,” Meyer said. “We’re used to having some freaks out there.”
Don’t let the lack of measurable statistics take away from Trattou’s and Lemmens’ value to the team, said defensive tackle Terron Sanders, another senior who’s looking forward to making a name for himself this season. To Sanders, UF’s defensive line is about strength in numbers — there was talk of a 12-man rotation this week.
“The last few years, we’ve been led by the linebacking core with Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper and them, and it’s our time to step up,” Sanders said.
“We have a lot of talent and maturity up front.”
And a lot to prove.