Maybe the big question mark isn’t such a big question mark after all for the Florida Gators. Ever since four senior starters graduated off last year’s offensive line, the talk has been that the 2006 offensive line could be this year’s missing link but with a fast close in practice in the final days leading up to game one, Coach Urban Meyer is sounding a little bit more confident.
The Gators will open against Southern Miss Saturday with three part-time starters from last year, a tackle that has started one game at tight end and a first time starter at the other tackle. There’s only one senior, center Steven Rissler, and he has 11 starts in his Gator career, all of them at guard. Right guard Drew Miller has four starts in his career, one of which (Georgia 2005) earned him Southeastern Conference Lineman of the Week, and left guard Jim Tartt has three starts in a career that has been marred by injuries. The tackles will be a third-year junior Phil Trautwein, who has played in 18 games and actually has a start at tight end, and fourth-year junior Carlton Medder, who has seen action in 12 games in his career.
Among the backups will be two true freshmen and a sophomore who has seen action in 12 games almost exclusively on special teams. That’s not a whole lot of experience, but Meyer seems quite content with what he’s seen of this group.
“They’re as ready as they’ve been,” Meyer said Thursday evening after Florida’s final full practice before the season opener. The Gators will go through a walk-through of the game plan on Friday. “We’ve kind of finished on a high note. They’re making all the right calls.”
It’s the guy in the middle that has really pulled this line together and gotten them game ready. Rissler has proven to be the team leader the Gators have to have in the middle of the line as well as a better center than even Meyer could have envisioned.
“Rissler has done a great job of keeping them all tied together,” said Meyer, who knows that his senior from Sarasota has to be the real rock in the middle of the line Saturday against a very good Southern Miss defense. “We’re playing a defense that kind of likes to give you a bunch of different looks and that center is a critical guy because if half the line is going one place and the other half is going another place you’ve got an issue.. He’s done a good job.”
Meyer knew when he met Rissler that he had an outstanding person that would work hard, excel in the classroom and never give him a moment of trouble. What he couldn’t foresee is that Rissler would step to the head of the class once he got his chance to become the starter at center.
“I kept hearing he’s a tough guy,” said Meyer. “I know we always saw a quality person but I didn’t see the great football player until this summer. I saw a chance that he could be really good.”
Perhaps it was just getting the chance to play. Rissler did a very good job filling in at guard last year when the Florida offensive line was beset with injuries but he didn’t get a chance to show what he could do at center because the Gators had what seemed to be a lifer playing the position. Now that he’s the man in the middle, Meyer is seeing a totally different player.
“He came out of his shell a little bit,” said Meyer. “It’s hard to play behind a great one that was here four years. Mike [Degory] was here forever. I think he [Rissler] is a better player than I gave him credit for early on.”
The first tackle off the bench will be sophomore Jason Watkins, whose game experience has been mostly on the special teams, but he’s looked good in the last few days and solidified his position as the top reserve at the position. The top backups at guard will be a pair of true freshmen — Maurice Hurt and Marcus Gilbert.
“Watkins will be the first tackle in and Maurice Hurt will be the first guard in,” said Meyer. “Marcus Gilbert will probably play. We’ll try to get him in the game as well.”
Hurt is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for several days but he has practiced full speed all week and he’s ready to go.
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The freshman wide receivers have added speed and explosiveness to the position, making it as deep and strong as any in the Southeastern Conference. True freshman Percy Harvin will be the first freshman wideout in the game.
“They [freshman receivers] are game ready,” said Meyer. “Percy’s really game ready. The fans will see Percy Harvin a little bit.”
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Florida’s freshman class, rated no worse than second best in the nation by all the recruiting services, will be well represented in the season opener. Almost half of the class could see some sort of playing time in game one. Meyer said he hasn’t seen a look of panic in them as game time nears.
“I wanted to see that look in their eye,” Meyer said. “They’ve answered the bell this week. I didn’t see the tightness you would expect out of a couple of these freshmen.”
Asked how many he expects to see action, Meyer responded, “A lot of them will play … 10-12 of them might play.”
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The Gators elected team captains and because the vote was so spread out among the 20 seniors, Meyer decided that all the seniors will be captains and he will decide which ones will serve as game captains each week.
“What we’re doing, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done it is our senior class are the captains,” he said. “We’ll go game week, 4-5 of them each week and I’ll make that decision. We did a vote and the vote was sprayed like you would imagine when you have 20 seniors and a bunch of them that are playing so we went with the senior class as our captains this year.”
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The Gators excelled in kick coverage last year. Take away the Tennessee and Kentucky games (51 combined punt return yards) and the Gators allowed only nine punt return yards on 54 punts. The kickoff coverage was also outstanding.
What was lacking was big play capability in the return game. Meyer is hoping to see serious changes in that department.
“The coverage was pretty good last year,” he said. “I’m anxious to see our return game if we have enhanced that. We’ve worked awful hard at it. Jemalle Cornelius and Percy will return the kicks and Reggie Nelson and Percy will return punts.”
Meyer said this is one area that has to improve because it is so critical to winning the field position battle.
“I hope we have [improved because we have to get much better there,” he said.
Sophomore Jonathon Phillips will handle kickoff for the Gators. He doesn’t have the big leg to drive the ball out of the end zone, but the Gators use a scheme in which the ball is kicked cross field into one of the corners in an attempt to pin the opponent in.
“Jonathon Phillips will open up as our kickoff guy and he won’t knock it out of the end zone a lot but he’s getting it closer to the end zone,” said Meyer. “As long as we place that ball — we’re a deep left team … as long as we can place that in the corner like we did against FSU and Iowa we’ll be okay. We depend on that guy to place that ball, even more important than knocking it out of the end zone.”