It starts in the trenches

The numbers don’t lie. Take a look at the success of Florida’s 2007 offense and those staggering numbers tell a story of an offensive line that got the job done game in and game out. The Gators might put up offensive numbers in 2008 that make the 2007 numbers pale in comparison and if that happens the men in the trenches will have done their job once again. When it comes to his 2008 line, Coach Steve Addazio returns four starters and more depth than he’s ever had at Florida so he knows this unit could turn out to be very special.

If you look at numbers alone, the Florida gator offensive line was truly the most efficient line in the entire country last year when you the balance the running and the passing game. Here is an example of what they did last year:

In the nation’s toughest football conference (SEC), Florida finished first in the country in yards per pass attempt at a whopping 9.25 yards. They were more than two yards per attempt higher than the next SEC team (Tennessee). Take that another step and talk touchdowns, which is the duty of the offense in the first place. Florida finished first in the SEC by almost two full attempts by throwing a touchdown for every 11.3 passes attempted. Tennessee had a touchdown for every 13.2 passes attempted.

Per play, the Gator offense finished second in the entire nation to Hawaii. The Gators averaged 7.01 yards every single time the ball was snapped. We saw what happened to Hawaii who they played an SEC team in the bowl game.

The Gators allowed the fewest tackles for loss in the entire nation. They also led the nation in third down efficiency.

The Gators finished first in the SEC in rushing touchdowns and second in the SEC in yards per rush behind Arkansas, which had two running backs go in the first round of the NFL draft.

Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers get credit for the great stats but every single time they touch the ball, they can thank those five offensive linemen that lead the way on running plays or protect the quarterback when he throws. When it comes to Florida’s 2007 offense, it all started up front.

The line figures to be improved this fall and if the spring is an indicator, this might be one of the best Florida offensive lines ever. It was a hard spring that featured a lot of first team offense/first team defense head to head contact. There were injuries and some players missed the entire spring, but Addazio saw enough to come away feeling very good about the unit he will put on the field in the fall.

“I came out of spring like I have a group of guys I can play with and I felt good about it,” Addazio said on Monday. “I hope in game one we are healthy and it feels great. I know the realistic thing is we will play physical and if we play as hard as we want to play, then guys are going to be dinged up here and there. We have a working number of guys and I am excited about it, we have the chance to have the best offensive line I have had in my entire career.”

Addazio can deal with his line from a point of strength nowadays. If one of his guys is having a bad day, he will pull him immediately and replace him with a quality player. It doesn’t matter if that player has started 30 games or none. Addazio isn’t going to tolerate one of his players getting constantly beaten on the field and he believes his starters and backups are more than capable of matching up against any defense the Gators will face.

“If they don’t match up, then they don’t belong playing here,” he said. “Now maybe someone isn’t playing well, then, it is the next guy in. That is the way it should be. Sometimes you see these guys get fatigued and tired then get the next guy in. It is hard. At the end of the game you have been grinding, you are on 70 or 80 snaps and they are coming up the field on you fast … then rotate them. Maybe early in the year it is hotter than hell … then rotate them.”

It is a deep, experienced starting five that includes three seniors (Phil Trautwein, Jim Tartt, and Jason Watkins) that were recruited by the former staff. The other two projected starters are the Pouncey Twins, Maurkice and Mike. Maurkice started at guard last year while Mike was the starting nose tackle for the last third of the season. Among his backups, Addazio believes he has four or five that he could substitute liberally without much break down.

“Our goal is to be at least nine strong,” he said. “I want to get to a point where I feel like we are nine interchangeable in any given game. I have some ideas in how I want to do that, but I want ownership by the guys in the unit to say ‘that these nine guys we trust.’ I want to play fresh, strong, and relentless. I don’t want anyone on the field tired. I want guys running down the field trying to cut people, knock people down. I just have this vision of what a line should be and for the first time I feel like we have quality depth, guys that could go on the field and play for anybody.

“I feel like we are heading down that path. (R-FR) James Wilson, (SO) Carl Johnson, (SO) Marcus Gilbert had a great spring. (SO) Mo Hurt wasn’t able to play this spring. He is fine now. (SO) Jim Barrie is really coming along. Those guys could play for anybody. We have depth and we need it in this conference because of the rough schedule we play and the length of the schedule. We also need [the depth] to play the way we want to play. The vision we have as a unit is to be relentless. We want to finish blocks and that is hard to sustain that for 70 something snaps. When you do that it is great, we need guys to roll in and guys to take that on, I think that is when you start to get good. Plus there is competition, everyone is always working in practice.”

He is going to really stay on top of his guys to make sure they are running full speed during a game. With players that are capable waiting in the wings, Addazio sees no reason to have someone struggling out on the field, at least while his group is healthy like they are now.

“If there is a reason someone looks sluggish to me or someone not playing well, or someone jumping off sides, next guy … go!” he said. “If I see a guy not acting at the level I think we should be at, he’s out … next guy. Go! We all react better when there is a sense of urgency and competition. We are a better football team when that happens, a better unit when that happens. Again, that is the way I see it right now as of today. But, I want to see it come game one.”

Playing and practicing well is only part of the game for Addazio. A college football player is a student-athlete and that means that his linemen need to take care of business in the classroom at an acceptable level or they won’t be in his group of players that he trusts.

“My vision would be is to have nine guys ready to go, or whatever that number is,” he said. “If it’s seven, eight, nine, or ten … as a unit, we are going to buy into the fact that we all totally trust and are accountable for that guy going into that game and everybody is going to have ownership in that. If we don’t feel that is the case, then they won’t go in the game. If a guy isn’t taking care of his business in the classroom then I can’t count on him on the field either. It is all about accountability. When guys are firing, they are firing all over the place. Their life is in order; they are on track; they are disciplined. I feel like we are hitting at an all time high right now.”

To ensure his backups are always ready to play on a moment’s notice, Addazio is not going to hesitate early in the season and early in the games to get the second unit some playing time. The trust has to start early and often with him and it also has to cut both ways. He wants a group that is as good on the first snap of the game as they are on the last snap of the game, regardless of what the defense is throwing at them. He also wants the same thing at the end of the season as the beginning, regardless of injuries or fatigue.

“If we don’t start that rotation at the beginning of the game then you are hesitant to do it in the beginning of the game,” Addazio said. “The same with the year. If you don’t rotate them at the beginning of the year, then you will be hesitant to rotate them at the end of the year. If you are committed to playing a group of guys then you should play a group of guys, as long as you are not lowering the standard of the unit. If you are lowering that standard, then they shouldn’t be in the mix, unless it is because of massive injuries. If eight guys are ready to play then lets go play.

“Does that mean it has to be an even number of snaps? No. Maybe a guy gives you ten snaps or twelve snaps. Maybe a guy gives you one or two series, maybe three. I think you are a better football team.

“To play in a great football position to play with great punch, it’s physically exhausting. To think you can do it for eighty snaps is probably not realistic. But, sometimes you do what you have to do, because sometimes 70 percent of one guy may be better than the next guy. But if the group is firing, there should not be that big of a discrepancy. So, this guy might be a 100 percent type player and he gets tired, the next guy might be a 90 percent type player, when the first guy gets down to 88 percent let’s get the next guy in there. You can’t have a guy that is at 60 percent. You can’t have a player in the game that is going to lower the level of the play.”

Right now he has a group he can rely on. Right now, his offensive line is firing like they should be.