Speak Up: Former players talk Florida football

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With Florida football seemingly on the upswing, Inside the Gators decided to ask four former Florida football players to share their thoughts on this year's team, players at their specific position and the upcoming contest against the rival Tennessee Volunteers.
Offensive lineman Shannon Snell (2000-2003) - A three year starter at offensive guard, Snell was a Sporting News First Team All-American in 2003 and earned Second Team All-SEC honors in 2002. He signed with Denver as an undrafted free agent before then playing for both Dallas and Jacksonville.
After what happened the opening week against Bowling Green, to go Texas A&M and come from behind to beat the Aggies on Kyle Field was a huge win for Will Muschamp and his program. What are your thoughts on what that victory means going forward?
Snell: I think for the entire team, it was a enormous confidence booster. To beat good team, looking for their first win in a new conference in a hostile stadium, it just doesn't get much bigger than that. I wouldn't care if we were a BCS contender, that was a huge win.
Two games into the season, what surprises and disappoints you most about the 2012 edition of Florida football?
Snell: I love how Jeff Driskel is maturing. I did not expect it to come so early in the season where he had to lead his team to an important win. It's exciting to see how these next couple of years could turn out for him. Xavier Nixon has become one of my favorite players on the team. His attitude and style of play is a total 180 from last year. I'm very happy to see that. There are no real disappointments that I see. Florida has become a 'What you see is what you get' kind of a football team. I miss the days of the Fun and Gun and the Spread-Option Attack, now replaced with defense and a strong run game, but it is what it is. Times change.
#18 Florida faces their second straight road test this weekend when the Gators head up to Knoxville to face #24 Tennessee. What do you remember about playing in Neyland Stadium?
Snell: Ha-ha! I don't remember much about the 2000 game except for Jabar Gaffney's catch and how pissed all the Tennessee fans were. I mean, they were livid. We had to be led out by officers because things were being thrown at us and the bus. It was ugly.
The 2002 game was ugly in a different way. It rained the entire game. It sucked because it was my first college game, well, only college game, that I've had to play in the rain. Nothing can really prepare you for something like that. Your cleats are heavier, pads are heavier, and there's no way to keep your footing.
In your opinion, what is the key for Florida to win? What do you expect in this game?
Snell: I think Florida's number one key to winning is putting pressure on their quarterback. Tyler Bray is pretty good and if he is given a lot of time, he can annihilate you. With Tennessee having fast and athletic wide receivers, Florida can not give them any extra time to get open.
I don't expect this game to be very high scoring. I think both team's will have early game jitters, but start to open up the scoring somewhere in the second quarter. No doubt about it, it will be a close game, but unlike in years past, I think Tennessee has the ability to close it out.
In the stat book UF was credited with surrendering eight sacks last weekend. All of those sacks though weren't due to poor play from the offensive linemen. As a former offensive lineman what are your thoughts on that situation? Is it frustrating when a quarterback holds the ball too long or is it something you live with in hopes that he won't do it often?
Snell: I think the whole team understands that Driskel is learning on the run. The last skill that a quarterback learns is to throw the ball away when a play isn't there. Yes, it can be frustrating to know that the quarterback could have thrown the ball away to prevent a long yardage situation, but this just goes with the territory of being an offensive lineman.
What are your thoughts on the offensive line as a whole through two games?
Snell: Let's see how I can word this ... cautiously optimistic? I enjoy the fact that these guys are now coming off the ball and hitting defenders in the mouth. Protection for the most part has been decent. I am frustrated with short yardage and mental lapses. Short yardage is super important because the Gators will eventually have to win a game on a 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2 without running a trick play or a quarterback roll-out.
Kicker Jonathan Phillips (2005-2008) - The former Lou Groza Award semifinalist (2008) finished his career as the SEC and Florida record holder for PAT kicks made (78) and attempted (79) in a single season. He was 12-of-14 on field goal attempts during his Gator career.
Florida goes on the road to face SEC East rival Tennessee this weekend. What do you remember about playing in Neyland Stadium?
Phillips: Tennessee away was always one of my favorite games. The most memorable part of the stadium is the lack of a skyline. From the field all you can see is fans unless you look straight up.
It seems like at every level of football they are trying to all but eliminate the kickoff. What are your thoughts on the new kickoff rule, moving the ball up to limit the number of returns?
Phillips: The new kickoff rules intent is to reduce injuries, no one can argue with its purpose. Kickers are likely the only players that don't mind the ball being moved up to the 35 yard line, with return specialists and fans probably hating the rule the most. In 2006 the rules changed allowing kickers to only use a one inch tee, making two inch tees illegal. In 2007 kickoffs were moved from the 30 yard line to the 35 to reduce touchbacks and increase returns. I think looking at the increase in injuries on kickoffs from 2007 to last season would be interesting.
Kickoffs are the most dangerous play in the game. They give guys who might not be on the starting lineup on offense or defense a chance to prove themselves. Some walk-ons get out on the field as special teams players and this is there only chance to play. And sometimes you throw a guy like Riley Cooper on both Kickoff and kickoff return, because despite the risk of injury you need him on the field. I remember during two a days, coach [b]Urban Meyer[/db] would bring in Brad Culpepper to talk to the guys. He would always bring in this face mask that was all smashed up from when he was young in the NFL. Along with it came a great story about a game of chicken and how he would never flinch, because he's not a bitch. I think he may have seen some stars after that, but I am sure he was out there on the next one, ready to go. And the Gators, like lots of other teams, have a few guys just like that on kickoff who go as hard as possible, see stars, and won't tell anyone because they are there to play. But when it comes down to it, I think running down and not flinching on kickoff is not just part of the game, it is the game for 21 of the guys out on the field or 22 if Matt Piotrowicz is kicking. As a college football fan, I am disappointed with the rule change. Kickoff returns may be dangerous, but they are also one of the most exciting parts of the game.
Safety Nick Brooks (2002-2006) - A backup safety during both the Ron Zook and Urban Meyer years. Brooks totaled 19 tackles in 20 career games, contributing mostly on special teams.
What are your thoughts on what the Florida victory over A&M means going forward?
Brooks: Anytime you take a team on the road, in a hostile environment, it is going to be tough. With the tradition the Aggies have, I think the victory was a great confidence booster for us. To go on the road and win in that environment after being down early and be able to fight and come away with a win, it shows how hard the team has worked in the off-season. That victory shows we know how to win and are ready to battle for four quarters.
Two games into the season, what surprises and disappoints you most about the 2012 edition of Florida football?
Brooks: I'm surprised by the downhill running game that is being established. In the past Florida has been known for airing it out, but now it is exciting to see how the offensive line is opening holes for our running backs in the running game. I am disappointed by the pass protection of the offensive line. I thought there were too many sacks given up against Texas A&M.
What do you remember about playing in Neyland Stadium?
Brooks: I remember playing in Neyland Stadium at night and running out on to the field and just hearing the fans yelling and going crazy. I was not able to hear anything even with a guy standing right infront of me talking. I remember them playing Rocky Top the entire night - which was annoying until the end of the game when we came out with the victory.
In your opinion, what is the key for Florida to win this game?
Brooks: I think Florida needs to establish the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and establish the run game early and win the rushing battle. Play solid on special teams. We need to get pressure on the quarterback early and often and create turnovers on defense.
Florida's secondary is considered one of the best in the SEC. As a former defensive back, what are your thoughts on the unit?
Brooks: The secondary has been impressive so far this season. I have been impressed with Matt Elam making plays in the run game and leading those guys out there. Although Bowling Green and Texas A&M were able to throw the ball around a little, neither team was able to get behind the secondary for a long completion.
Defensive end Johnie Church (1992-1995) - Played in 46 games with 22 starts, including 11 starts as a senior in 1995, under Steve Spurrier. He was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.
After what happened the opening week against Bowling Green, to go Texas A&M and come from behind to beat the Aggies on Kyle Field was a huge win for Will Muschamp and his program. What are your thoughts on what that victory means going forward?
Church: To go on the road and respond in the second half like we did vs. TAMU is a major step for a young team that seemed to rarely answer the bell last year. That was a hostile environment against a team and fan base hyped over their first chance to prove their worth in the SEC. We did something we didn't do all of last year, and that was punch back!
Two games into the season, what surprises and disappoints you most about the 2012 edition of Florida football?
Church: To me, the biggest surprise thus far is the early play of our secondary. Players seem to have more ball awareness this year. Surprisingly, disappointing was our lack of conditioning vs. TAMU, the extensive shoulder tackling and the early absence of a vertical passing game.
UF hits the road this weekend to take on a ranked Tennessee squad. What do you remember about playing in Neyland Stadium?
Church: The 31-0 shutout in 1994. With newly added seats for 100k+ fans and a boisterous Volunteer squad, we took that personally and went out and literally quieted the crowd. You could hear a flea jump on that field by mid third quarter. We knocked two quarterbacks out and ended with what was the start of four bad years for Peyton Manning against the Gators!
In your opinion, what is the key for Florida to win? What do you expect in this game?
Church: The four major keys needed to win this game are - feed Mike Gillislee the ball like he was a hungry hungry hippo. Get our quarterback to get rid of the ball or take off quicker (be more decisive either way). Win the special teams battle. Get pressure with our front four or five & make their quarterback check down.
What are your thoughts on Florida's defensive line through two games?
Church: I like what Lerentee McCray has shown early on as the hybrid rusher. I think Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd are in positions that better fit their strengths now. With that being said, I think they're biggest improvements are ahead of them & this week is a great time to get six or seven sacks.
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