Experience boosts UF's O-line

Veterans want to drop 'soft' label


Florida is counting on improved play from tackle Matt Patchan and the rest of the offensive line.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 1:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.

When Will Muschamp called out his team for not being physically and mentally tough enough after a 21-7 loss to arch-rival Florida State last November, a lot of eyes turned to the Florida offensive line.

Of all the areas where the Gators may have been soft, this probably was the most obvious.

It was reflected in the play up front.

The Gators had zero inside running game, were manhandled by physical defensive fronts and had problems protecting the quarterback in 2011.

Soft.

Four months later, the same players who formed that offensive front are starting to be viewed in a different light. The UF offensive line this spring has started to look and play more like a potential team strength.

How did that happen?

Muschamp’s best explanation is that those same players who struggled so now have what they didn’t have last season — experience. (They also may be a little stronger and a little tougher coming out of new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman’s offseason program).

“There’s been marked improvement up front from this time last year or really any time last season,” Muschamp said. “Go back, and now those guys have been playing together for a year. They’re all back, it’s the same guys.

“Xavier Nixon is playing his best football since I’ve been here. James Wilson has done some nice things. (Jonotthan) Harrison is a lot stronger than he was last season. Jon Halapio continues to play well. Matt Patchan and Chaz Green have both had good springs.

“Again, all these guys now. … Football is a developmental game, but that’s a developmental position. That position takes time, and those guys have continued to make strides. I’m really, really pleased with what they’ve done.”

Heading into last season, Halapio and Nixon were the only offensive linemen with significant starting experience.

“We had a bunch of new guys up front,” Muschamp said.

Patchan had missed most of the previous two seasons with injuries. Wilson missed the last 10 games of the 2010 season with a knee injury. Before earning his first start in the Outback Bowl against Penn State, Harrison had seen only limited playing time. Green was a true freshman who redshirted in 2010.

Last season, Nixon, Halapio, Green, Harrison, Patchan and Wilson combined to start 52 games.

UF’s offensive line is a seasoned group now.

“(Experience) helps a lot,” Harrison said. “You get used to the people you’re working with.”

Experience and chemistry are considered crucial for strong offensive line play. The Gators have to seem both now.

The big guys also have a new coach — Tim Davis, who replaces Frank Verducci as the offensive line coach. Davis is a veteran coach who has a reputation for building strong and physical lines, especially in the downhill running game.

Davis coached with Muschamp when the two were with the Miami Dolphins in 2005, and he seems to be a good fit for what the Gators are trying to establish in the running game.

“Coach Davis has us working hard,” Harrison said. “We watch a lot of film with him, work on a lot of technique emphasis and a lot of mental toughness emphasis to get us more focused on what we’re doing.

“He’s a great coach. He’s a funny guy. We feel like we can do great things with him as our coach.”

Harrison said there is a lot more “physicality” on the offensive line than last season.

There’s also more depth than last season. Sam Robey and Kyle Koehne are experienced players who have shown they can play more than one position. And the two early enrollees — true freshman tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Jessamen Dunker — have impressed the coaches and appear on track to seeing playing time this season.

“You’ve got the young guys coming along,” Muschamp said. “Jessamen Dunker is going to be a really good football player. How quickly and how fast, I don’t know, but he’s doing some nice things. He’s made strides.

“D.J. Humphries continues to impress. (Redshirt freshman) Trip Thurman has done some nice things. Collectively, across the board, we’re better.”

But are they tougher?

That’s a question that won’t be answered until the fall.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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