HOOVER, Ala. – The general feeling throughout the region — and likely throughout the country — is that the number and caliber of returning players is what will set apart Florida from most other programs this fall.
That certainly was the case Thursday during Day Two of the Southeastern Conference’s football media days. While Gators coach Urban Meyer reviewed the deep and talented roster that will attempt to win a third national title in four years, the day’s other featured speakers — Georgia’s Mark Richt, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt — talked candidly about some players who left after 2008.
Saban, for example, was particularly critical of offensive tackle Andre Smith, who was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, a game the Crimson Tide lost 31-17 to the University of Utah.
“We don't have one individual on our team that can make our team great,” Saban said. “But we do have one individual, any one individual, who could destroy the team chemistry, destroy all these things that we're talking about by being a blinking light and making bad choices and decisions about what they do.
“We had an example of that last year, even in our Bowl game. So you saw what kind of team we had for 13 weeks, and then what kind of team we have for the 14th game that we played.”
Smith won the Outland Trophy before he was suspended and was drafted sixth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Similarly, Georgia’s Mark Richt sees the potential for addition by subtraction this year although not in terms of a bad attitude. In his case, he figures quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno were such good players — both were first-round draft picks in April — that their teammates relied a little too heavily on them in 2008, when the Bulldogs went 10-3.
“Everybody expected us to win it all because we had those guys who were stars, and maybe subconsciously our guys thought, ‘We can count on these guys,’” Richt said. “Now that they’re gone, I think our team understands the only chance they have is to play together, work together and earn it as a team.”
Nutt, likewise, wasted no time talking about players he lost.
He, however, lamented the departures of offensive lineman Michael Oher and defensive tackle Peria Jerry who were taken with consecutive picks in the first round (23rd and 24th, respectively) of the draft.
“Those guys were not only captains of our football team and leaders, but just played so hard,” Nutt said. “So we got to replace a very good group of seniors.”
Meyer did talk about the losses of wide receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, yet it did not go overlooked that he has welcomed back every player on the defense’s two-deep chart from last season. Also back, of course, is senior quarterback Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winner following his sophomore season.
“I think we've really promoted the competition and we've promoted ‘team first,’” Meyer said. “Great things happen when you have an unselfish team. Last year's was arguably the most unselfish I've been a part of. They got to wear a championship ring, compete in the SEC championship game.
“That's what we have going for us right now. I really believe our guys love it at Florida. More importantly, I really believe they care for each other. It's a good situation right now in that locker room, in the weight room, and when they're together. That's not easy.”
It’s not exactly common either.