Florida’s offensive line lost four starters prior to the 2011 season, and the Gators struggled mightily with a handful of youngsters getting their first meaningful snaps of their careers.
With four starters returning for the 2012 season, coach Will Muschamp is confident his team will be much improved in the trenches on offense.
Today GatorCountry.com stops to evaluate the offensive line and what Florida fans can expect from the unit going forward.
Overview: Florida entered the spring relatively healthy up front on offense, a very noticeable difference from the unit that competed there last spring.
The Gators stayed healthy throughout the spring, and the starting five took real shape as the four returning starters put a stranglehold on their spots while James Wilson stepped seamlessly into the open spot at left guard.
Though the defensive front was particularly banged up this spring, the improvement in Florida’s practice that were open to the public was plainly visible on the offensive line.
The unit was able to create holes for a stable of bigger backs, which opened up the between-the-tackles running game the Gators have lacked for the past two years.
With a solid starting five and a few experienced backups, the offensive line should be one of the better positions on offense. Still, the group has a lot to prove after two very subpar years.
Depth Chart: Exiting spring practice, there only seemed to be one real position still up for grabs. That was the right tackle position, where Matt Patchan narrowly edged Chaz Green for the starting position. That battle will likely continue into the fall.
From left to right, the starters are as follows: LT Xavier Nixon, LG James Wilson, C Jon Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RT Matt Patchan.
Chaz Green is expected to be the primary backup at both tackle positions, while Sam Robey will be the backup center and Kyle Koehne will be one of the top backup guards.
Strengths: Since our view of the offensive line was limited quite a bit by closed practices, it’s hard to say exactly what the strengths will be for the unit. Couple that with a banged-up defensive front, and it’s even harder to say.
Perhaps the only sure bet for the offensive line is that it will be more experienced in Will Muschamp’s second year. That’s generally a good thing in the SEC, though there was a world of room for improvement.
In the limited portions of spring practice we were able to see, the pass blocking seemed much improved. Part of that is certainly attributable to having two more mobile quarterbacks than John Brantley behind center, but the line itself also played much better.
The lack of penalties in the spring game was also a marked improvement from a year ago, when the unit had plenty of false starts, illegal formations and delays of game.
If those things continue into the fall, they should help the unit improve substantially.
Individually, the most noticeable improvements were made on the left side of the line. Nixon looked as comfortable at left tackle as he has since his freshman season, and Wilson continued his run of strong play dating back to the end of the 2011 season.
Weaknesses: Although the offensive line showed significant improvement this spring, there were still a few areas of concern.
First and foremost, the line wasn’t able to get the type of push up front in the run game you would have expected with several starters missing in the defensive front seven. The running game had a few consistent gains running between the tackles, but it was far from a manhandling performance up front.
The size up front is improved with Wilson’s addition and some weight gain from the other starters. However, turning that additional mass into strength will be pivotal this offseason.
Far too often last season the group was pushed around. Nixon was a liability at tackle, so how far he’s able to come along will determine how long he stays in the starting lineup, in all probability.
Harrison seemed improved getting off the line after snapping the ball, but working on blowing back his man at the point of attack will need to be a point of emphasis this fall.
Room for Improvement: As a whole, there’s still plenty of room for improvement for the unit. As banged up as the defensive line was this spring, the performance from the offensive line left a little to be desired.
The main areas the unit needs to improve after spring are fairly simple. The explosion off the ball and the line of scrimmage has to improve for the running game to be significantly improved.
The tackles, which looked much improved in the spring, will need to continue their progression in keeping the faster defensive ends in the league from beating them around the edge.
Finally, the entire unit has to play with more cohesion than it did a year ago, which should smooth out some of the discipline penalties the unit was prone to last season.