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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Baby Gators are about to grow up.

The UF football team has just two returning starters on defense in safety Tony Joiner and defensive end Derrick Harvey, and the Gators have a group of cornerbacks and linebackers that barely got grass stains on their jerseys last season.

Even their offense - as talent-laden as it is - has youth in standout sophomores quarterback Tim Tebow and wide receiver Percy Harvin.

So, for UF's sake, thank goodness it starts out against Western Kentucky.

"We probably need (the non-conference teams) for a couple games," senior wide receiver Andre Caldwell said. "The lower-ranked teams. A lot of these players haven't been in the game-time situations. We're going to have to get into a groove.

"We need them just to develop and find out what we really need to work on. It's necessary to get (the young guys') confidence up. I think it's a big plus for us."

The Gators will start their season Saturday afternoon against the Hilltoppers at 12:30 at The Swamp, and it will be Western Kentucky's formal introduction to Division I-A football.

The Hilltoppers have had success in Division I-AA, winning the national championship in 2002, but that's in Division I-AA. Against Southeastern Conference competition, Western Kentucky was throttled 37-14 by Auburn in 2005 and 48-12 by a Georgia team last season that failed to score more than 25 points in seven of its 13 games.

While the Hilltoppers appear to be a pushover, that's not how all the players are viewing it.

"A football game is a football game," said sophomore cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis, who is set to make his first career start for the injured Markihe Anderson. "We play the same team every way because we won the national championship. Everyone is going to give us their best. We have to be ready to take on whatever people (are) going to give us."

And that?s just the way UF coach Urban Meyer wants to see it.

"I love singing 'We are the Boys,' and I love that whole deal, but that's afterward," he said.

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Meyer said the coaches have been preaching the idea of focusing solely on giving maximum effort in four-to six-second increments - the average amount of time one football play lasts.

"Our kids are so young they're buying into that now," Meyer said. "Defensive coaches every huddle break are saying, 'Four to six seconds.' Four- to six-second burst, then go again. That's what makes football so hard."

Regardless of UF's inexperience, Western Kentucky has reason to be nervous.

"As a coach, one of the things that you get concerned about is your guys getting caught up in the hype and really the atmosphere of a 90,000-seat stadium," Western Kentucky coach David Elson said. "The main thing is our guys understanding it's a different setting when you get in there with 88,000 people that don't like you."

Don't expect UF to sleep through this game. The Gators are young, but the coaching staff has repeatedly said effort has not been an issue, a far cry from where UF was a few seasons ago.

"It has transformed a whole 360 degrees," Caldwell said. "We feel we can't get beaten. We're working a lot harder. We're a lot tougher. We're a lot more confident."

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