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Meyer ends leave of absence, returns for Gators' first practice

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Urban Meyer could feel himself holding back Wednesday. His punt block team crouched, ready to pounce. Before, Meyer would have stationed himself on the line with his rushers. Shoot. Before all that mess in December, he would have tried to block the damn punt himself.

Wednesday, Meyer remained at a distance. He let linebackers coach D.J. Durkin, Florida's new special teams coordinator, handle the heavy coaching in that drill. That Durkin holds that particular title is a sign that Meyer has made at least a few changes since a health scare caused him to quit Dec. 26, then return on the condition that he take a leave of absence. In his nine previous seasons as a head coach, Meyer's special teams coordinator was Urban Meyer.

On the day that Meyer's former quarterback introduced his revised throwing mechanics, Meyer introduced his revised coaching mechanics. Everyone wondered Wednesday morning whether Tim Tebow will maintain his new release under pressure. Everyone wondered Wednesday afternoon whether Meyer will maintain his new ability to delegate under pressure.

One spring practice in, he seemed relaxed. "Don't ask me," Meyer cracked when someone asked how quarterback John Brantley looked in his first practice as the Gators' starter. Then Meyer smiled and laughed. He did that a lot Wednesday. He looked nothing like the shadow of himself who quit for about 18 hours in December. He had bulked up to a healthy weight. His eyes flickered as he talked about the challenge of replacing the stars who had worked out for NFL scouts earlier in the day. Three months ago, his eyes just looked tired.

Meyer said he returned to work full-time about two weeks ago. Whether he took enough time away won't be clear until the season. Burnout is a wicked opponent. It can take 25 years to fell a man the first time. Then, after he gets up, it can knock him back down again in a matter of months. How Meyer handles his stress level -- plus his willingness to delegate and his commitment to fitness and his mental health ? will determine whether burnout gets him again.

Meyer declined to discuss medical specifics, but he said he feels great. He played a major role in assembling Florida's 100-star recruiting class. "The one who held the recruiting class together," co-defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said, "was Urban." After National Signing Day, Meyer actually did break away for a time. To unwind, he and wife Shelley took a vacation to Hawaii, which wouldn't have been stressful at all except for the threat of a tsunami.

"We got a phone call at 5:30 in the morning," Meyer said. "They said we had 30 minutes to evacuate."

The Meyers relocated to higher ground, and the tsunami never came. It will come eventually. The first time the Gators lose, Meyer will have to deal with the same stressors that landed him in the hospital in December. How will he respond?

Chances are, Florida will lose some this season. The program went 26-2 the past two seasons, and it's impossible to achieve at that level indefinitely when everyone else also has 85 scholarships. Tebow is gone. So are most of the best players on defense. "It is a kind of rebuilding, I guess," Meyer said. "A reloading, or something like that."

Heater was quick to point out that this will not be another 2007, when Florida lost its defensive stars from a national title team and replaced them with freshmen and sophomores who struggled through a four-loss season before growing into world-beaters. The defenders who will replace linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and cornerback Joe Haden, Heater said, are not youngsters getting thrown to the wolves. They've been in the program. They understand the level of competition they'll face. "That's what good programs do," Heater said. "You should be able to retool."

But can Meyer retool his style in crunch time? He admitted Wednesday that spring ball is the easy part. "Spring time, I'm usually like this," he said. "I let the guys coach."

What will happen, during a week in the heart of the SEC schedule, when Meyer absolutely has to get that damn punt blocked? Will he still be able to delegate to his special teams coordinator and know the job will get done?

"I really like our coaches," Meyer said Wednesday. "I like our special teams coordinator. But the eye of the tiger is on him."

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