Throughout the first few weeks of the season, there has been perhaps no unit on the Florida team who has performed more consistently than the offensive line. The group was an eyesore last season, but after a year of maturity — not to mention Jeff Dillman’s helping hand in the weight room — the line has shown remarkable improvement this year, becoming a huge part in Florida’s revamped ground game which currently sits at fourth in the conference.
On Saturday, however, adversity hit the unit in a major way, as three starters were forced to miss time. Center Jon Harrison (elbow) and Tackle Xavier Nixon (minor concussion) both left the Vanderbilt game after sustaining early injuries. Guard James Wilson did not even the trip to Nashville as an apparent eye-injury, which he sustained during the week, was severe enough to keep him from suiting up.
Will Muschamp spoke earlier this season of a motto in the Gators program — “Man Down, Man Up” — which Gators backups Kyle Koehne, Sam Robey, and Ian Silberman apparently took to heart, stepping up admirably for the Gators en route to a 331-yard day on the ground.
According to coach Will Muschamp, the backups were impressive. “Well there’s no question,” said Muschamp. “You look at Kyle Koehne and the job he has done for us this year as well. He’s a guy that played well the other night … they did a nice job. Vanderbilt gave us a lot of looks and a lot of movement up front, and I’m very pleased with how those guys progressed in the game. It certainly makes you have a better comfort level as you move forward that they’ve played in those situations and they’ve played on the road and they’ve had to make adjustments in the game and play against good people and that’s what they did. I’m certainly pleased with how they played.”
There was perhaps no bigger recipient of the line’s blocking than quarterback Jeff Driskel who had a career day on the ground in Nashville to the tune of 177 yards. On Monday, the sophomore quarterback was complimentary of the big uglies’ performance.
“We had three guys go down,” said Driskel. “Whenever you have three starters go down, that’s huge, especially three O-linemen. But we had three guys who stepped up. That’s what we’ve been doing all year long. When a guy goes down, the next guy is going to have go up. We have great depth, and that really helped out on Saturday.”
While the prognosis for the injured linemen appears to be well enough where they could play on Saturday, according to Driskel, the preparation wouldn’t change no matter who is or isn’t playing.
“It doesn’t change it all,” Driskel said. “It’s the same preparation, it’s the same mind-set that we’re going to have to run the ball downhill, we’re going to have to hit big plays in the passing game and we’re going to have to win our one-on-one matchups. Like we’ve been saying, it’s about depth and we have confident in our guys that they’ll be able to step up and make plays.”
Naturally some would assume there to be a drop-off once a starter has to leave the game. However, senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, who has surely seen a number of reps against both the starters and backups, feels that is not the case.
“I don’t think there’s a drop-off,” said Hunter. “Those guys come out each and every day at practice, and they go just as hard as our No. 1 starters. Robey’s a very experienced guy being a senior. Ian’s been around for a long time, too, and he’s going hard too in practice.”