April 3, 2008

Gators hope McCarney can provide spark

MORE: Florida spring practice preview | Team-by-team spring practice previews

GAINESVILLE, Fla. South Florida defensive end George Selvie has a piece of advice for Florida's defensive linemen: Don't expect any coddling from your new position coach.

Selvie took part in the "Dan McCarney Experience" as a sophomore at USF last season. It included a coach in his face, up-tempo practices and unfit-for-TV language. It also resulted in an All-American season for Selvie.

"They're in for a short memory," Selvie said of Florida's defensive linemen. "If they do something good on the first play and mess up the next play, that's it he's going off."

Florida hopes the intensity from its new line coach rubs off on a young line and Selvie-like results would be welcomed.

McCarney was in top form in practice last week, providing linemen with instant feedback after every play, good or bad. He chewed out defensive tackle Troy Epps, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he couldn't get away with a junior college approach in the SEC.

Moments later, McCarney's mood swung. Sophomore tackle Torrey Davis blew up a play at the line, and McCarney swooped in to help Davis off the field. "Make a play like that, I'll help you up every time," said McCarney, making sure the rest of his linemen could hear him.

"You know every second of every play he's going to be out there coaching us to make plays," said junior defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, Florida's most seasoned lineman with 13 career starts. "You know with every play you've got to produce."

McCarney is stepping into big shoes on the Florida staff. He replaces Greg Mattison, the former co-defensive coordinator and line coach who accepted a position in February as the Baltimore Ravens' linebackers coach. Mattison was one of the architects of the defense that led Florida to the 2006 national title, and four linemen from that team were drafted in 2007. End Derrick Harvey, a part-time starter in 2006 who was Florida's best lineman in '07, is a possible first-rounder later this month.

When Urban Meyer needed to replace Mattison, he looked south down Interstate 75 at McCarney, who took a job as an assistant at USF last season after an 11-year run as Iowa State's coach.

Meyer and McCarney never faced each other as head coaches, but there was a kindred spirit built while McCarney was with the Cyclones and Meyer was coaching at Bowling Green and Utah.

"He and I have been friends," McCarney said. "There was a lot of mutual respect. Those are three real tough jobs, more than anybody realizes on the outside. There was a real bond that way."

McCarney has a tough job now in taking over a work-in-progress Florida defensive line. Meyer called McCarney's the "most important, most difficult" job on the staff. "He's taking over the position that needs the most development as far as the youth of that group and production," Meyer said.

Florida defensive line changes since winning the 2006 national championship:

2006 championship game starters
E Jarvis Moss: First-round pick of the Denver Broncos
E Derrick Harvey: Projected first-round pick in April
T Ray McDonald: Third-round pick of San Francisco 49ers
T Steven Harris: Undrafted free agent for the Broncos
2006 other key linemen
T Marcus Thomas: Fourth-round pick of Broncos
T Joe Cohen: Fourth-round pick of the 49ers

2008 projected starters
E Jermaine Cunningham: 13 starts, 64 tackles last season
E Justin Trattou: one start, 20 tackles last season
T Javier Estopinan: nine career starts, out this spring (knee)
T Troy Epps: Junior college transfer
2008 key backups
E Carlos Dunlap: seven tackles, one sack last season
E Jaye Howard: Redshirt freshman
E Duke Lemmens: six tackles last season
E Lawrence Marsh: five tackles last season
T Brandon Antwine: Bad back limited him to four games
T John Brown: Redshirt freshman
T Torrey Davis: eight tackles, two sacks last season
T Terron Sanders: four tackles last season
Most of the key players from an offense that averaged 42.5 points and 457.2 yards per game return, including Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and game-breaking wide receiver Percy Harvin. But the defense struggled last season, when the Gators allowed 259.5 passing yards per game - the worst mark in school history. Coaches are counting on improved play up front to lift the entire defense and lessen the burden on the offense.

The improved play on the defensive front must come without Harvey. For the most part, the leftovers are untested or unproductive. Cunningham did start every game last season, recording 6.5 sacks. Tackle Javier Estopinan started eight games but is out for the spring after his third ACL surgery.

After those two, McCarney must sort out the rest. Sophomore ends Justin Trattou, Carlos Dunlap and Duke Lemmens and junior Lawrence Marsh served as backups last year. Tackle is even more jumbled with Estopinan's injury concerns. Epps, who enrolled in January, is being counted on to produce immediately.

Davis has talent but has been in and out of the doghouse. John Brown is another potential star, but he had academic issues last season and still is catching up on the field.

McCarney said he'd like to play a rotation of eight or nine linemen, but it's doubtful that he will pick the starters until fall drills.

"There's not a guy who has a job right now," McCarney said. "It's very clear we don't have my four starters right now. There's been no one consistent enough for me to say, 'That's my starter.'

"I want to play a lot of guys. But they've got to earn that. I'm not going to put eight or nine guys on the field I can't trust."

While McCarney is looking for his starting four, the linemen are searching for an identity of their own.

"Last year we were real young, and pretty much Florida's greatest d-line in history had just left," Lemmens said. "It was especially tough for us younger guys to step in early and get confident and get an identity."

The answer might be to take on the intensity of their position coach, who made a vivid impression on the Gators' defensive linemen while they watched USF beat West Virginia 21-13 last season. The Bulls played that game on a Friday, when Florida was in the team hotel the day before facing Auburn. Lemmens said the Bulls' defense, which recorded 14 tackles for a loss and three sacks against the Mountaineers, made a lasting impression.

"We've got to establish more of an attitude," Lemmens said. "Florida has such a history of d-linemen and we have to act like that. The talent is there."

TOMORROW: The Spring Break Tour hits Tampa as we bring you the latest from South Florida.

MORE: Florida spring practice preview | Team-by-team spring practice previews

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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