While there might be a lack of warm bodies on scholarship to start the spring at a number of positions, the Florida Gators won’t have those problems on the offensive line. That’s quite a contrast from last season when Florida entered the season with 17 starts among all offensive linemen. In 2007, returning starters have 56 games worth of starts.
The Gators lose just one starter off a line that played a big part in the 2006 national championship but it’s a big loss. Steve Rissler played the center position about as well as you could expect, but it was his leadership that was the key factor in the development of the offensive line. Rissler had 11 career starts coming into last season, although none at center. He was calm, cool and relaxed and he patiently helped bring along the young guys around him. The line only got better as the season moved along.
This year, the Gators have experienced veterans and some young depth that is raring to get its chance to show what it can do. It is a good combination of upperclassmen with experience and young guys that want to play which means there will be competition every day in practice. Another advantage of so many vets on the offensive line is that the young guys on the defensive front four will have the advantage of going against outstanding offensive linemen every day in practice and that will hasten their development.
The Gators return both tackles that started all 14 games for the 2006 national championship season. Senior Carlton Medder of Clermont (FL) has been around five years (redshirt 2003). He was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team last year when he stepped it up in practice and then proved he could get the job done in games after spending three years off the radar. Medder’s development began when he trimmed down his body fat and added enough muscle to turn himself into a legitimate SEC tackle.
Senior Phil Trautwein of Vorhees (NJ) played as a true freshman and saw some action at tight end and on special teams as a sophomore. Last year he finally got on the playing field at left tackle and he got the job done in a steady, workmanlike fashion. Trautwein has very quick feet an solid technique. He does everything the staff asks him to and is a huge lift as a returning starting left tackle.
Junior Jason Watkins of Lakeland (FL) is a tackle but sees most of his time as the sixth offensive linemen playing in the tight end position in a jumbo set. Watkins also has quick feet and the long arms that are a necessity for the tackle position.
Red-shirt sophomore Simon Codrington of Miami (FL) has the tools to be a big time lineman, but has not had the opportunity just yet. He has height, long arms, and the weight to muscle people around. He will have to work hard however to keep some of the younger players from moving ahead of him.
One of those younger players is Marcus Gilbert of Ft. Lauderdale (FL). Gilbert moved back and forth between guard and tackle last season when some of the regulars in the rotation were injured, but his true position seems to be tackle. He didn’t play last season because of an elbow injury that required surgery, but Gilbert has the tenacity and the other tools that coaches are looking for. He will be slowed tremendously this spring while his elbow recovers from surgery but once he gets healthy he has a legitimate shot to become the top back-up to the starters at the tackle position.
Carl Johnson of Durham (NC) is a redshirt freshman that has done nothing but work his tail of since arriving in Gainesville. He is always the last one on the field running, because he wants to. Johnson is huge and has worked hard on moving his big body around and becoming a better lineman. This could be a big spring for Johnson and a time for him to make a move.
With Rissler gone at center, the staff would love to plug an experienced player into the position make the transition a little seamless. The first one to get a crack at it will be 2006 starting right guard Drew Miller of Sarasota (FL). He was a tackle in the spring of 2006, before moving to guard to get the best five on the field. Miller is an exceptional lineman, strong and intelligent. He could possibly be the best player at every position on the offensive line if he worked long enough at them.
Edie Haupt of Merritt Island (FL) is a redshirt sophomore that will need to make some noise this off-season because there are some really talented players that are coming in behind him that have a chance to move over to the center position. Coming of an injured back, Haupt has the mental tools to play the position and if he can get stronger, he could be a valuable asset to a really strong group.
Redshirt freshman Jim Barrie of Tampa (FL) is another heady player that stands to gain a lot this off-season. A true multi position type player, Barrie should get a shot at the center position and be able to compete right away. With the Miller move to center not quite set in stone, it could be a very lucrative spring for the likes of him and Haupt.
With Miller moved to center to start the spring, the lone returning starting guard is junior Jim Tartt of Sopchoppy (FL). Tartt has always been one of the staff’s favorites in terms of identifying what they look for at the guard position. He is the prototype road grader, the masher that just plows everything over in his way. If Tartt can stay healthy, which he did most of last year, he has a chance to be one of the best linemen in awhile at the University of Florida.
Ronnie Wilson of Pompano Beach (FL) and Maurice Hurt of Milledgeville (GA) are two guards that will also get a look at the center position. Both will challenge for one of the top five spots on the field, so there is virtually no chance both will end up at center. This staff wants to put the best five linemen on the field, regardless of where they are really projected to play.
Wilson is a bruiser and actually played a lot coming down the stretch of the season in 2006. He was slated to start the year at right guard leaving Miller at right tackle, but a broken ankle left Wilson sidelined for the first half of the season. A redshirt sophomore he is another aggressive and attacking player the staff really likes.
Hurt may get a medical redshirt from last season after playing sparingly in only three of the first four games before he was injured. He enrolled in January of last year and made huge strides to see the field as a true freshman. At this point, Hurt should be considered along with Wilson as one of the top six linemen on the field and destined for a lot of playing time, if not a starting position.
Corey Hobbs of Oviedo (FL) came to Florida as a defensive lineman and was a little slow to adjust to the offensive side of the ball. This redshirt freshman has a great attitude. He has had a chance to show his mettle this off-season and move his way up the depth chart. Hobbs is another big burly weight lifter type that is physically ready as a second-year freshman to see the field.
Last, only because they are the new kids on the block, are true freshmen guards Maurkice Pouncey and Michael Pouncey of Lakeland (FL). From everything we have heard the twins have been excellent this spring in their training and preparation for the upcoming practice sessions. Both are road graders that were two of the three top linemen on the East coast for the class of 2007. They are big, strong, fast and very aggressive. Both will be looking to try and make an immediate impact.
With fifteen quality linemen on hand, the Gators really couldn’t ask for much more to work with this spring. When St. Augustine freshman James Wilson arrives in the summer, he will have somewhat of a formidable depth chart to work through to get on the field, yet he is another big time player that will be added to the mix.
I am a true believer that a solid offensive line can really make everyone else on offense better on the field. The strength of the entire team this year, at least early on, should be up front on offense. While the defense is learning the ropes, the offensive line should be able to lead the offense to enough points to win most games.