The old guy in the middle of the line is actually one of the newbies, too. Steven Rissler has the most starts of any Florida offensive lineman (11) but they’re all at guard so even though he’s the only senior on the line and the most experienced, he’s traveling in uncharted waters by taking over for a four-year starter at center.
He’s turned into a better center and leader than even Coach Urban Meyer expected, changing one of the team’s big questions — who would replace four-year starter Mike Degory — into a positive answer. Now as the Gators start putting on their game faces for Saturday’s season opener with Southern Miss at The Swamp, Rissler is ready to do what linemen are supposed to do which is get out there and hit somebody that’s from a different team.
He likes the contact in the line but he’s the first to admit that hitting the same people every single day in practice isn’t nearly as much fun as the chance to go against somebody new in a game situation with a stadium packed with Gator fans. He knows that once the hitting begins, he and his mates on the offensive line can turn all the negatives they’ve been hearing into a positive statement. Rissler, Drew Miller (right guard) and Jim Tartt (left guard) all have some starting experience. Tackles Phil Trautwein (left tackle) and Carlton Medder (right tackle) have never started a game in their careers.
“We’re looking forward to this week and getting ready to play a different team because we’ve been hitting the same guys for the past month and that gets old,” said Rissler Monday. “We’re going to go out and try to be able to run the ball and pass the ball and do well and not be the focal point where you say ‘oh the offensive line is the reason we’re not running the ball’ and stuff like that. Everybody knows that we don’t have a lot of experience so we just hope to prove everybody wrong that doesn’t think we can do it.”
In Coach Urban Meyer’s previous coaching outposts at Bowling Green and Utah, the offensive line took charge in year two and the offense literally exploded. Yardage records and scoring records fell at both schools in year two. In this, Meyer’s second year at the Florida helm, there are similar expectations of history repeating itself with an offensive explosion. The Gators have an abundance of speed, talented skill people and a three-year starter at quarterback.
Of course, for the offense to explode, the line has to do its part. Rissler says the goals are achievable — a minimum of 150 yards per game rushing and somewhere between 250 and 300 yards passing. If the Gators reach those goals, then it’s very possible Florida will be competing in Atlanta for the SEC championship.
Like most of the players on Florida’s roster, one of the reasons Rissler came to Gainesville was the lure of a Southeastern Conference championship. He redshirted one year and has played three seasons but there’s no championship ring to show for all the effort.
As the only senior on the offensive line, this is a last chance for Rissler. He doesn’t want to leave the Florida football program without something on his finger to show for all the effort.
“I’m going to do anything to get to the SEC championship,” he said. “I’m going to help out any way I can. I’m the only senior on the offensive line so I’m going come to work hard every day and try to bring up everybody else because they don’t have a lot of experience so they do look up to me.
“As far as experience, I can’t say I’ve started a bunch of games. I think I’ve got only something like 11 starts, but they [fellow linemen] look up to me so my goal is to try to win games and try to make it to the SEC championship.”
He gets some inspiration from his quarterbacks. Chris Leak will be starting for the fourth straight year. Like Rissler, he doesn’t have a championship ring so there’s a lot for him to prove as well. Rissler’s seen a new intensity in Leak that he hasn’t seen before. Up until now, Leak has been quiet and reserved, a leader by example and not much on the vocal end. That seems to have changed drastically.
“Chris has changed a lot,” said Rissler. “He’s a lot more vocal with the offensive line now. We’re more involved with him, too. He relates to us more and we talk to him more.”
And then there is Tim Tebow, the freshman phenom that backs up Leak. Quiet, he isn’t. He brings an intensity to the quarterback position that Rissler has not seen before. Whether it’s in the weight room where Rissler describes Tebow as “a beast” or when he’s in the huddle with the second string offensive line, getting in their faces if they’re not going at it with enough intensity, Tebow has energy that rubs off on everyone.
“You look at a guy like Tebow … he works his butt off and I think he’ll do well just because he’s such a hard worker,” said Rissler. “If he gets in trouble he can always run with the ball and it’s going be hard to bring him down. It will be tough for him at first, but he’ll be fine.”
Rissler said the way Tebow goes about practice and preparation is motivation for everyone, even the first team linemen.
“I know that he gets pretty intense out there on the practice field,” said Rissler. “He comes to practice every day with passion to get better and I think that’s going to help us out a lot. You know he’s there, working hard. I watch him and see how hard he works and I look up to him for that and I commend him for that.”
Getting the ring is the main objective for Rissler and that means taking it one game at a time. He knows that there are plenty of obstacles in the way but he’s been through plenty of adversity in his first four years at Florida. Now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to leave as a champion.
“Obviously coming to the University of Florida you come here because you want to win a championship,” he said. “That’s our main goal this year. We have a tough schedule but we can get through it. This is my last year so I would love to leave here with a ring.”