All eyes were on starting quarterback John Brantley in Saturday’s season opener against Florida Atlantic, and the senior signal caller looked much improved from the poor showing he put on in the Gators’ spring game a few months ago.
To head coach Will Muschamp, that came as no surprise.
“John’s been that way all the way through spring, I’ve been saying it all along,” Muschamp said. “Then we went out in the spring game and didn’t play as well. We didn’t play well around him, but it wasn’t John’s fault. He didn’t have any protection.”
The offensive line was virtually non-existent in the spring game, as Florida was down to just seven scholarship players due to several injuries on the line.
The unit that entered the 2011 season for Florida was much deeper and healthier. In fact, the Gators rotated seven players through the first-team alone before playing many more in the fourth quarter.
“I feel we came out aggressive and with a lot of energy,” left tackle Xavier Nixon said. “Everybody’s going to have to clean up the first week, but we just came out aggressive and with low pads and played hard.”
Having everybody stay healthy through fall camp was a crucial factor for Florida, and the Gators did it well.
The results were obvious, as the unit came out looking much better than the line that performed a year ago, when defensive linemen frequently flew through the line to sack Brantley.
Against Florida Atlantic, the offensive linemen kept Brantley’s jersey clean, not allowing a single sack.
“I feel like we have great cohesion as a line, as a unit,” Nixon said. “We spend a lot of time on and off the field bonding together so we just roll on the field.”
The starting offensive line from left to right was Nixon, Dan Wenger, Jonotthan Harrison, Jon Halapio and Chaz Green. Kyle Koenhe got extensive reps at left guard, and so did Matt Patchan at right tackle.
Patchan is one of the players the Gators are counting on if he can stay healthy. He has missed the better part of the past two years with a knee injury and a wrist injury.
“Matt’s style of play is exactly what we want, to come off the ball, explosiveness, all those things, the intangibles that he has,” Nixon said. “It’s just great to have him back.”
The offensive line got off to a shaky start in its first series after moving down the field fairly quickly.
As they approached the red zone, a snap flew over Brantley’s head for a 15-yard loss and most in attendance grimaced as they recalled the bevy of snap problems in the early going in 2010.
But Florida’s line regrouped and played a clean game the rest of the night.
“The most encouraging thing was probably our poise,” Nixon said. “When some things went bad, we kept our head in it, stayed level-headed and just moved on to the next play.”
The good play from the offensive line allowed the Gators’ ground game to get off to a running start to the season, as Jeff Demps ran for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns and Chris Rainey chipped in nearly 80 yards and a touchdown.
“You can just hold your block for a second and those guys just fly right past you and you just watch them run into the end zone,” Nixon said. “They’re versatile players and they just make things happen. It’s great to see them together in tandem getting touches. It’s just a beautiful thing.”
While the interior run blocking needs to improve somewhat, the pass blocking was terrific for Florida.
All in all, Saturday night’s season opener was a great start for an offensive line that was a big weakness for Florida a year ago.
“It’s a good confidence-builder to start the year with a win like this,” Nixon said. “Hopefully we can just keep it rolling.”