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Gators add glitz to spring football game

GAINESVILLE — There was a time when Urban Meyer wasn't all that fond of spring games. In fact, he didn't quite understand why the fans were so interested in a glorified practice.

"My first time in the Swamp, we had that huge crowd (58,500), and I remember thinking, 'What are you people doing?' " he said. " 'Go play golf or something.' "

Three years later, things have changed, and so has Meyer's thinking. Which is why he's pulling out all the stops today for Florida's annual Orange and Blue game.

"It's kind of a fan appreciation day, to get them out there," Meyer said. "It's going to be much more than just a game."

For starters, ESPN's College GameDay crew will broadcast live from a spring game for the first time. There will be pregame autograph sessions, a yard sale and opportunities for fans to get photos with the 2007 Heisman Trophy and 2006 national championship trophy.

And there's the fastest Gator on campus competition, which pits finalists who qualified this spring against receivers Louis Murphy and Deonte Thompson and running back Chris Rainey in a 40-yard dash.

And yes, there will actually be a scrimmage, too. But don't expect to see some of the Gators' best players in action for long. Murphy, quarterback Tim Tebow, linebacker Brandon Spikes, running back Kestahn Moore and offensive lineman Jim Tartt will play sparingly.

The future, however, will be on display quite a bit, including the two quarterbacks battling to back up Tebow — Cameron Newton and John Brantley.

"I want to see how they handle the crowd," Meyer said. "I know how Tebow handles the crowds. Now I want to see how the other two handle it."

What you might see is a much-improved defense. That unit was of greatest concern entering the spring.

But first-year cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford said several returning players have made "dramatic improvements." And incoming freshman cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Jeremy Brown have made an early impact, Bedford said.

"We have a lot of competition, and those two young freshmen are making the guys that are here better," he said. "We started off a little bit slow, a little bit raggedy. But as we've gone through spring practice, they know what the expectations are now. So I'm pleased right now with their performance. The way we've practiced this spring, I think they've matured quite a bit."

Meyer said he's hoping for a huge crowd today to give his young players an opportunity to play in the kind of atmosphere they'll be asked to perform in about four months from now. That's all that's left to accomplish this spring, he said.

"One thing we want at Florida is for the players to see how they react in front of a big crowd," Meyer said. "Otherwise, we've had 13 excellent days (of practice). The spring game is for players who haven't done a whole lot, but I don't want to disappoint the fans and people watching on ESPN.

"So that's why we wanted to do something more than just a lousy football game."

Antonya English can be reached

at english@sptimes.com.

Gators add glitz to spring football game 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 1:43pm]

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