It has been a much more enjoyable — and a lot less physical — spring for Florida offensive line coach Mike Summers now that he’s got plenty of big, healthy linemen to work with.
He had so few a year ago that the 59-year-old Summers often had to pretend he was a lineman and participate in drills so the offensive line could practice.
“Feels really good because I don’t have to jump in there and be one of the guys in the drill to fill it out. It’s getting really hard for me to get down in there on the 3-techniques,” Summers said. “So, certainly the numbers have made our whole team able to practice differently because we can separate drills now and work with our twos and threes at all the other positions because we have an offensive line to go with that group.
“It’s helped our whole football team having the numbers and now we just have to make the numbers better. All the guys that are in that group just have to continue to get better everyday.”
Jim McElwain replenished Summers’ offensive line through recruiting and transfers. Three of the six linemen signed in the 2015 class ended up starting games last fall — guard/tackle Martez Ivey, center/guard Tyler Jordan and tackle Fred Johnson. The three who redshirted — Nick Buchanan, Brandon Sandifer and Richard Desir-Jones — along with North Carolina State transfer T.J. McCoy now are active and competing for playing time this spring.
Even though Ivey is out for the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, the Gators are still a solid two-deep on the offensive line.
Now, it’s a matter of coaching up the young guys and getting them ready to contribute in the fall.
“It’s exciting to have those guys now in the group that we’re working with daily. And when you do this, one of the real exciting parts of coaching is watching young guys grow up and mature and understand what this is all about,” Summers said.
“We’re starting to see that from a lot of different guys and so I get motivated. I try to not get discouraged that we don’t get everything exactly right, which we haven’t done yet. But when we get on the right guys and it all looks really good, it’s satisfying. And so I’m really encouraged with those younger guys. I think they’re coming on the way that we want them to.”
Summers seems very high on Sandifer, who is still massive but nowhere near the 360-plus pounds he was when he arrived last summer. There was a point last season when the staff considered pulling the redshirt off him due to depth issues, but he was able to save the year of eligibility and get stronger and slimmer on the scout team.
“Improving,” Summers said of Sandifer. “I think the main thing that he’s been able to do since he’s been here is lose an enormous amount of weight, and that’s certainly helped him with his movement skills and putting himself in the right position. And now, he’s on that same developmental path that those young guys were on last year that got playing time.
“All of the things that our defense is doing now with the movement and the blitzing and all that is happening fast for the first time, and guys are running past him and he’s not really sure what number they had on their jersey. So we’re trying to slow the game down just a little bit.
“When he gets his hands on you, he can move you. He’s got great anchorability and he’s got great fits inside. We’ve just got to complete the package with some experience and a little confidence.”
Summers said Kavaris Harkless is another young lineman who has started to emerge.
“He’s really improved as well,” Summers said. “I’ve been excited watching him come on. He’s been slow developing up to this point. I think this is the first spring where I’ve really started to see him make some strides, which is going to do nothing but help us with depth and give us another guy that we can count on. We try to move these guys around a little bit and give them some experience on different lines to see how they do.”
Unlike last spring, when he had to worry each day if he’d have five healthy linemen to work with, Summers has plenty of players to coach and develop, which is making for a much more enjoyable time on the practice field.
He said he learned from last spring’s experience.
“I learned I really don’t want to be in that position,” he said. “It’s difficult when you are so used to having guys you can count on. Certainly that group that walked out of here the year before were all experienced guys. There is going to be some drop-off. You just hope it isn’t all going to be in one year.
“Now that we’ve gone through it I actually was encouraged with some things that happened last year and saw those guys come together as a group. I know that will do nothing but help us as we go forward.”