Florida's line of protection

The offensive line is seen during an open practice session on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 12:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 12:45 p.m.

Florida is banking on its experienced offensive line as a strength heading into the 2012 season.

Yet while UF's four returning starters showed the ability to run block at times in 2011, pass protection was another story.

“That was one of the things we really struggled with last season,” Florida junior guard Jon Halapio said.

The Gators allowed 23 sacks last season, including two that knocked 2011 starting quarterback John Brantley out of games. Brantley suffered a sprained ankle following a sack against Alabama and a concussion after a sack against rival Florida State.

Protecting the quarterback has been emphasized in fall camp, though questions were raised when sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel suffered a shoulder injury in a practice last week. Driskel was hit on the shoulder by a defensive lineman on the same day UF coach Will Muschamp took the non-contact jerseys off quarterbacks in practice.

But UF junior defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd said the offensive line is giving the quarterbacks more time to throw the ball.

“They are doing a really good job,” Floyd said. “They are understanding defenses and why they have to block a certain way and where slide protection goes. I think we're all a lot mentally stronger.”

Halapio credited new offensive line coach Tim Davis for the change in mental approach. He blamed last season's breakdowns in pass protection on not making right calls and studying opposing defenses.

“With Coach Davis this year, he's been stressing that a lot, looking at safety rotations, different alignments with the gaps of the down linemen and just different looks out of linebacker,” Halapio said.

Added Florida junior center Jonotthan Harrison: “It came down to understanding the defense, not just relying on technique. And now that we understand defenses a lot more I'm noticing great improvement in the pass protection.”

Experience should also help. Harrison and Halapio each started every game during the 2011 season. Returning projected starters Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green have combined for 31 career starters at tackle.

“It's built a lot of chemistry because we have this history together,” Harrison said. “We've played with each other for such a good amount of time.”

New offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants to develop a downhill running game to help sophomore quarterbacks Driskel and Jacoby Brissett develop and gain confidence. But the Gators are still going to need to throw at times. And to throw the ball effectively, UF's offensive linemen are going to need to continue to protect the quarterback.

“It's definitely harder,” Halapio said. “As offensive linemen you would like to, at least I would prefer to run block. It's just something you are going to have to adjust to. It's part of the game.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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