Florida’s spring includes big changes

ATHENS — Tim Tebow is spending this spring working on improving his throwing motion. Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap are hoping to up their draft stock. Charlie Strong is running practices in Louisville. Urban Meyer is fresh off a medical leave of absence after considering retirement just a few months ago.

To say things are different in Florida this spring would be an understatement, but defensive end Justin Trattou isn’t ready to surrender the Gators’ recent stranglehold on the SEC East just yet.

“We have some other talent on this team,” Trattou said. “Those are guys who are All-American type players. It’s not a talent issue. Any time you lose 10-11 guys invited to combine alone, anybody’s going to in their mind say a rebuilding year.”

Even if it’s not a rebuilding year, the two-time defending SEC East champs have plenty of reworking to do.

The most compelling storyline, of course, involves replacing Tebow, the three-year starter with two national championship rings and a Heisman trophy to his credit. The man tasked with filling such big shoes is rising junior John Brantley.

Brantley looked sharp in backup duty last season but is a far different style quarterback than his predecessor, both in terms of his on-field skills and his locker-room demeanor.

“Through these three years, Tim and I became great friends,” Brantley said. “We had zero grudge against each other. I know that I’m not him. I’m not like that, but I’ve learned to be a little bit more vocal. Not all that jumping around stuff. More of a leader behind the scenes.”

Brantley will have his work cut out for him — not just in terms of stepping in for a legend, but in finding a few new targets to throw to.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez and receiver Riley Cooper are both NFL bound after serving as Tebow’s top targets last year, and the Gators will go into the 2010 season without four of their top five receivers from 2009.

While experience in the passing game may be thin, however, Brantley is not worried about a lack of talent.

“I know I have a lot of pressure on me to be successful,” Brantley said. “I’m going to rely on a lot of my playmakers. We have a great offensive line coming back with some great receivers and great running backs.”

Things aren’t much better on the defensive side of the ball, where All-SEC players like Spikes, Dunlap and cornerback Joe Haden are all gone. The Gators’ defense was among the best in the country for the past two years, but Florida will be searching for a new group of playmakers, and it will have a new man in charge of finding them.

Strong, the longtime defensive coordinator of the Gators, was hired at Louisville at the end of last season. His replacement, George Edwards, lasted less than a month before he bolted for an NFL job. Former Arizona Cardinals assistant Teryl Austin was hired following Edwards’ departure, and he has worked to preserve the same mentality that players like Spikes created, even though the personalities on the team have changed.

“Spikes is gone now, but it’s still never changed,” linebacker Brandon Hicks said. “It’s not going to change just because it’s one man gone.”

But change has come to Florida, and it’s more than one new starter in the lineup.

Whether or not the results stay the same remains to be seen, but Trattou said the challenge has been a driving force this spring.

“Last year we came in as the top dog,” Trattou said. “This year everyone is saying the Gators might have a rebuilding year this and that. That fuels us in the weight room. We’re working hard trying to prove everyone wrong.”