When Florida coach Will Muschamp publicly called his team out for being soft following a late-season loss to rival Florida State, the eyes of the fans turned to one position group in particular.
The Gators were pushed around on the offensive line all season long, resulting in a variety of injuries to starting quarterback John Brantley and his backups.
So far this spring, its looks like the unit has taken Muschamp’s challenge to get tougher to heart.
“The one thing I’m seeing is I’m seeing their bodies,” offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “Their bodies are changing. I think they’ve done some great things in the weight room (with) coach (Jeff) Dillman and what he’s done with these guys.”
Florida flung open its doors to two of its spring practices last weekend, and the difference was noticeable.
After Florida’s starters on the offensive line weighed an average 302 pounds this year, a few months of strength and conditioning – and a new starter – have boosted the average weight to 314 pounds.
Sixth-year senior James Wilson is a big upgrade, literally, over last year’s left guard Dan Wenger. Wilson checks in at 6-foot-4, 327-pounds, and he’s been one of the bright spots on the offensive line this spring.
“At guard, Jon Halapio is having a very solid spring,” Muschamp said. “James Wilson is having a solid spring at left guard. I tFhink those two guys have kind of distanced themselves.”
The Gators have mostly settled on a starting offensive line at this point, with only one spot thought to be up for grabs. That’s one of the tackle spots, where Chaz Green, Matt Patchan and Xavier Nixon are battling for the two starting roles.
Green appears to have the edge on the other two, but Muschamp said on Friday that Patchan is rotating at both right and left tackle and Nixon has played well now that he’s added some significant weight.
“I think Xavier Nixon is really playing pretty good right now,” Muschamp said. “Consistency in his performance was always key with him; it was last year. We’ve got to continue to be more consistent day in, day out. Matt Patchan has done some good things, he’s playing both right and left.”
Jon Harrison rounds out the starting unit at center, where he played a year ago. Harrison is up to 309 pounds, and Muschamp said he’s noticed a lot of lower-body strength from him he didn’t see a year ago.
Junior Kyle Koehne and senior Sam Robey have been two of the top backups on the interior.
Muschamp has also been fairly pleased with both of his freshman linemen, tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Jessamen Dunker, though he admitted they still have work to do.
“D.J. Humphries is a guy that, he’s a high school senior and he’s doing a really good job,” he said. “He’s working, he’s athletic, he’s got great feet, he’s a great feel, he’s very mature. He understands what it takes to be successful as a football player, so I’m very pleased with that.
“Jessamen Dunker is a guy that just, again, is very talented. He can move his feet, he’s 315 pounds, 318 pounds, and can anchor and move and get movement. Both of those guys are swimming right now mentally as far as what’s going on.”
The one thing that has made the most difference for the group as a whole is simply experience. Florida’s second-year head coach has repeatedly emphasized how little of it the Gators had up front entering the 2011 season.
With four of five starters back, Muschamp and Pease expect to see a big jump in the productivity of the line this season.
“I don’t want to say that on the basis that all the sudden we’ve reached it, because we’re a long ways from where we really want to be, I think,” Pease said. “We still need to be hungry in what we’re reaching for.”
The other thing to consider is that as pleased as the coaching staff is with the offensive line right now, they’re going up against a defensive front missing at least two starters.
Starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley is out for the spring with a torn ACL, and strong-side linebacker Lerentee McCray is out for the spring with a shoulder injury.
In addition to those two players, Muschamp also mentioned he’s counting on some pass rush from redshirt sophomore Neiron Ball next fall.
The offensive line hasn’t been perfect, either. There have been a few bad snaps and some timing problems up front.
“We’ve got to get more consistent in some snaps and focusing on our snap counts and that type of stuff,” Pease said. “That’s stuff that can kill you.”
Still, there’s reason enough for the new offensive coordinator to be excited after two years of shoddy play up front.
“They’re in pretty good shape, and the tempo that we’ve been going is kind of encouraging to see what they’ve done,” he said.