MINUTES AFTER the final whistle of spring practice had blown, coach Urban Meyer told strength assistant Mickey Marotti to put the defending national champions through the toughest off-season Florida had ever had. "We'll make it so hard," Meyer said, "that they're going to have a hard time picking up the Street & Smith's magazine that tells them how good they are."
On a July morning so humid that the air felt like crab bisque, a panting senior linebacker Ryan Stamper was asked whether Marotti had carried out Meyer's orders. "Stamp, was it hard today?" Marotti asked with the hint of a smile. "Was it hard?"
Of course it was hard. It had to be. With all 11 starters back on defense and a Heisman-winning quarterback with two national titles on his résumé, the Gators are more loaded than any other defending national champion since the 2005 USC team—and that's why they must outwork everyone else in July. The Trojans were denied a second straight consensus national title when they lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl. Florida doesn't want to fall short in its bid to become the first outright repeat national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and '95.
"This year," Stamper says, "everyone has the mind-set that if we don't win the national championship, [the season] is a failure."
A sample drill from Marotti's program: The blocking sled that Stamper drives at 60-yard intervals at the end of the workout, after all the running and lifting, is loaded with only 180 pounds. To Stamper's already wobbly legs, it feels like 1,000. But, say, in the fourth quarter against LSU, Stamper will be able to fight through exhaustion, shed his blocker and make the tackle. Similarly, sophomore wideout Deonte Thompson—one of the players Meyer hopes can replace breakaway talent Percy Harvin—will burn a tired cornerback, or quarterback Tim Tebow will blast through the line for a first down on fourth-and-short.
If the Gators win it all, they will have succeeded in part because Marotti did his job over the summer. On that July morning Stamper answered Marotti's question. "Yeah, it's hard," the player told the coach. "But it's getting easier."
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FLORIDA'S MIND-SET: WITHOUT A TITLE, THE SEASON IS A FAILURE.
COACH: Urban Meyer (5th year)
2008 RECORD: 13--1 (7--1 in SEC)
FINAL AP RANK: 1
RETURNING STARTERS: 18 Offense 7, Defense 11
5 Charleston Southern
26 at Kentucky
10 at LSU
24 at Mississippi State
31 Georgia in Jacksonville
14 at South Carolina
21 Florida International
28 Florida State
Tim Tebow's first trip to Death Valley, in 2007, was one to forget: 12 of 26 passing for 158 yards and an interception in a 28--24 loss. He'll have to be on his game in what figures to be the Gators' toughest road test.
A 31--30 loss to Ole Miss in 2008 marked the 10th straight year in which Florida lost to at least one team from the SEC West. In consecutive weeks the Gators face LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State out of the West.
J. MERIC/GETTY IMAGES
The fleet-footed Thompson is one of the players with a shot at replacing Harvin as the offense's top playmaker.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD C. LEWIS/ICON SMI
Stamper, who got a championship ring for the victory over Oklahoma, pushed himself in the off-season to make sure he goes out a winner.