Gators hoping for healthy Patchan

Florida lineman Matt Patchan was talking with some friends at a park in Brandon, Fla., in May 2008 when a passer-by sprayed a hail of gunfire into the group.

One of the bullets struck his shoulder, sending a serious scare into Gators fans when the story of the shooting surfaced.

Luckily, Patchan was fine, and doctors left the bullet in the soft tissue of his left shoulder.

While the bullet that pierced his shoulder didn’t cause serious injury, it was the first of a slew of injuries that shattered the surprising start to his stint with the Florida Gators football team.

Since that bullet lodged itself in his shoulder, the 6-foot-6, 292-pound monster’s career has been crippled by injuries serious enough to sideline the steeliest NFL veteran.

After contributing as a true freshman on the defensive line, Patchan moved to the offensive line for his sophomore season in 2009. He played in only four games before another medical mishap cut his season short.

Playing against Kentucky, Patchan shredded the ligaments in his knee, tearing his ACL so badly he wouldn’t return to full speed until nearly a year later.

Competing for a starting spot at offensive tackle in fall camp leading up to the 2010 season, Patchan injured his wrist. His recovery went awry and he missed the entire season.

Entering spring football practice, Patchan will try to shake the “snake-bitten” stamp that so many have slapped him with since he last saw the field for the Gators.

With four starters gone on the offensive line, Florida could sure use the long, curly-haired tackle to top his injury woes.

Patchan has a mean streak that few linemen have flashed at Florida. That attitude makes him a natural leader in the trenches.

If healthy, he could help anchor Florida’s offensive line and be the blind-side blocker who builds the foundation for the Gators’ offense in 2011.

But there’s also another possibility perhaps in play for Patchan.

Could he move back to the defensive line?

It seems unlikely, given Florida’s lack of depth on the offensive side. But the Gators do have three quality young offensive tackles whose futures look fantastic.

Xavier Nixon should cement his starting spot in spring football practice at one of the tackle spots.

That leaves a battle between Patchan and redshirt freshmen Chaz Green and Ian Silberman for the other spot.

Both of the younger guys are extremely athletic and perfectly put-together to play tackle in the SEC.

If either emerges during spring football, the development of the defensive end position could dictate where Patchan plays past the spring.

In limited action as a freshman on the defensive line, he plowed through several powerful players on his way to one and a half sacks and a tackle for a loss, while providing a disruptive force along the defensive front.

His burst off the line of scrimmage and leverage despite his size is impeccable, something that can’t be said of any of Florida’s current crop of ends.

His size also allows him to slide inside if necessary, another attractive option given Florida’s lack of big bodies inside with only four scholarship tackles.

While his future right now certainly seems to be on the offensive side of the ball, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that he could move back to defense.

But any ideas about playing Patchan anywhere are premature until he proves he can stay healthy.

So far, that has seemed like anything but an easy task for the Tampa native.

If he can get – and stay – healthy, Florida will have itself a quality lineman and a lot more flexibility at the line of scrimmage.